After thrashing an accommodating Ireland side 4-0, holders Spain may find Croatia a tougher nut to crack when they meet in Gdansk today in a game that will decide who tops Euro 2012 Group C.
A 2-2 draw would put both sides into the quarter-finals even if third-placed Italy beat Ireland and a defeat would probably mean an early flight home.
Spain played sparkling soccer against Ireland when the recalled Fernando Torres scored twice, but the world champions are wary of a dangerous Croatia side who are unlikely to stand around watching Iberian artistry.
In midfield playmaker Luka Modric, heavily linked with a move to Manchester United, and the tournament’s joint top scorer with three goals Mario Mandzukic, Croatia have the quality in key areas to cause problems for Spain.
“We watched the two matches they played here and they fully deserve the four points they have,” Spain defender Raul Albiol said on Saturday.
Only needing to avoid defeat to reach the last eight, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque will be toying with the decision about whether to retain Torres or revert to the strikerless line-up he put out in the 1-1 opening draw with Italy.
One thing is for sure, according to Albiol, neither side will be worrying about the mathematics of the group or play for the 2-2 draw that would suit both.
“Of course 2-2 is one of the possible results in football, but what is clear is that we will we go out to win,” Albiol said.
Croatia, who have never played Spain in a competitive game and are unbeaten in open play in their last six European Championship matches, are an intrepid side.
They lost to Turkey on penalties at Euro 2008 and they will be bristling with intent against a Spain side unbeaten in 16 competitive matches.
One lucky omen for Croatia is that when they played the holders at the 1996 European Championship, they effectively knocked them out with a 3-0 win over Denmark inspired by Davor Suker and his infamous chip over goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel.
The dilemma Croatia, who also have four points, face is that they must go for a win because a 0-0 draw would not be enough if Italy beat Ireland.
The very complicated scenario also means that a 1-1 draw might not be enough for Croatia if Italy beat Ireland by a two-goal margin other than 2-0.
Faced with the harsh prospect of going out with an unbeaten record, Bilic will implore his players to be bold.
“I hope luck will be on our side, too, though our players also need to play the match of their lives,” he said.