GDANSK, Poland, June 18 (Xinhua) -- Reigning champions Spain struggled to beat Croatia 1-0 here on Monday in the Euro 2012, topping Group C and sending Croatia packing.
Spain were insipid and uninspired in attack tonight. They eventually made a breakthrough, but for the rest of the encounter they never threatened to cut through Croatia. Andrea Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, the duo who are so lauded for Barcelona, were far from their best, and Fernando Torres barely had a sniff of goal in his hour on the pitch.
"It was a tense game, very difficult," Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said. "We didn't have much incision, they defended well and counter-attacked."
"We had expected that they would remove a striker and strengthen the right side with Vida. They did well and didn't leave any space," del Bosque added.
In the poor first half, Torres came closest to breaking the deadlock when he brought a good save out of Croatia goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa in the 23rd minute when he skipped past defender Gordon Schildenfeld.
The late winning goal came in the 87th minute when substitute Cesc Fabregas picked out Iniesta to slide the ball across for Jesus Navas who beat the offside trap and scored.
Navas said after the game, "It was a complicated final game. They were well organized, but we got the goal."
"We needed not only the ball, but also to create openings. With Cesc and Navas we achieved that. We are only thinking of progression," del Bosque noted.
Thus, Spain topped the group with seven points, 1-1 with Italy, 4-0 against Ireland and 1-0 over Croatia. Italy beat Ireland 2-0 tonight in Poznan to follow Spain into the quarterfinals with five points.
Croatia coach Slaven Bilic said that his side played better and showed its strength but the luck was not on his side.
Croatia were tactically excellent tonight and only conceded to the Spaniards once they were pushing forward in a desperate search for a winner. Coach Slaven Bilic sent his team out to frustrate Spain and they did so right from the start. Croatians created more and better chances tonight but the luck did not stand with them.
Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic, who had scored three times in the tournament, had earlier chances to break the deadlock and Croatia kept pushing deep into injury-time as they sought the equaliser that could still have sent them through.
Croatia had a loud penalty appeal turned down in the 27th minute when Mandzukic's charge down the right flank was brought to an end by a crashing challenge from Sergio Ramos on the edge of the box, but referee Wolfgang Stark waved Croatian appeals away.
Croatia came close to taking the lead in the 59th minute when Luka Modric beat Ramos on the right and crossed into the box where Ivan Rakitic's low header was brilliantly saved at point-blank range by Iker Casillas.
Perhaps shaken by the near-miss, Del Bosque responded by replacing the ineffective Torres with winger Navas, as his side sought desperately to regain control of the game.
Before the duel, a calculation of the 2-2 scoreline would see both Spain and Croatia through, regardless of the Italy-Ireland score. But the two did not do that and Italy survived.