Spain have emerged victorious from the UEFA Nations League final as they defeated Luka Modrić’s Croatia in a tense penalty shoot-out which saw Real Madrid defender Dani Carvajal convert the decisive penalty in fine fashion with a Panenka.
The 5-4 result in the shoot-out came after 120 minutes without a goal in an unusually close Nations League final four tie, the first to end goalless since the invention of the tournament in 2018.
Spain coach Luis de la Fuente started with only one Real Madrid player in the starting line-up, the soon-to-depart Marco Asensio, who started on the right wing and would go on to score his effort in the shoot-out.
Linked with a move to Paris Saint-Germain, Asensio continued the kind of form that Real Madrid fans have come to know him for. He looked a threat throughout, with five shots in total, but failed to hit the target with any. Arguably the best chance came with virtually the last touch as he headed a last-gasp effort worth 0.14 xG over the bar.
Madridistas off the bench
However, Madridistas would have a big influence from the bench, with Nacho Fernández replacing Ruben Le Normand in defence and Dani Carvajal deputising for the injured Jesús Navas in extra-time.
Nacho struggled somewhat to catch up with the pace of the game, picking up a yellow card and winning only one of five duels after coming on with 78 minutes already on the clock. Fitting in centrally alongside Aymeric Laporte, he conceded two fouls.
Carvajal’s minutes were more limited, featuring only in 23 minutes of action in extra-time before he made his crucial intervention in the shoot-out. The only unused Real Madrid player was Fran García, who remained on the bench waiting for his first appearance for Spain.
Strongly-linked forward Joselu also got minutes off the bench, and converted the first of Spain’s penalties in the shoot-out. Wearing the number 20, he was involved in a tough physical battle with Dinamo Zagreb defender Josip Šutalo, denying him a single attempt on target until the shoot-out.
Modrić misses out
Of course, victory for the Spanish team meant that Croatia, led by captain Luka Modrić, missed out. The 37-year-old midfielder played all 120 minutes, coming after 119 minutes against The Netherlands in Wednesday’s semi-final.
Despite that, he was one of the best performers on the night. He created two chances and with four fouls won, won more than any other player. In an intriguing midfield battle, the energy of Barcelona’s Gavi couldn’t get anywhere near Modrić.
However, despite his strong performance, he remains without a trophy with the Croatian national team. Just as in 2018 at the World Cup, he had to settle for a silver medal in his second international final with his country. At his age, he may not get another chance.
The total of 33 shots may make this 0-0 draw seem like an entertaining one, but the truth is a little bit further away. The average xG per shot was just 0.07, with 16 of the 33 shots, 48.4%, coming from outside the box.
Croatia had the better chances in the first half, but Spain came back into the tie in the second period, with Ansu Fati missing La Roja’s best chance. In extra-time, only two saves were made, both by Spain goalkeeper Unai Simón.
With that, the pressure turned to penalties, where Lovro Majer’s effort was saved by the Athletic Club goalkeeper, only for Aymeric Laporte to miss what could have been a winning effort.
Little know fact: Carvajal is a more than decent penalty taker. He used to stay with Sergio Ramos after training sessions with and bet against him. He won more often than Ramos did.— Eduardo Alvarez (@Alvarez) June 18, 2023
Fortunately for Spain, Bruno Petković missed his penalty next up in the order, with Simón stretching to the corner to reach, and consequently setting up Carvajal with the decisive shot.
It was the right-back’s first ever penalty, and the first time he has scored for Spain, although it won’t go into the record books as a goal given that it came in a shoot-out. He hit it in Panenka fashion straight down the middle, with Dominik Livaković diving to his right.
The result gives Spain their first UEFA Nations League title, correcting their defeat to France in last year’s final, and giving them their first trophy on the international stage since winning the European Championship in 2012.