COPENHAGEN (Reuters) -Spain have finally clicked into gear after a sloppy start at Euro 2020 but will face their sternest test yet in the last 16 from Croatia, led by a sensational Luka Modric who keeps raging against the dying of the light.
The champagne football certainly flowed in Spain's 5-0 win over Slovakia as coach Luis Enrique had promised after dull draws with Sweden and Poland but his side had the luck of facing an accommodating opponent and Croatia will not be so generous.
"In every sport they play, Croatians are always very competitive, they are lion-hearted and give everything for their country," said Spain forward Dani Olmo, who spent five years at Croatia's premier club Dinamo Zagreb.
"They really appreciate every objective they achieve. They have proven themselves in this Euros and in other tournaments, they thrive in difficult situations. There's no favourite in this fixture, it's anyone's game."
Croatia will need the 2018 Ballon d'Or winner Modric at his best, as winger Ivan Perisic was ruled out of the clash and possibly the rest of the tournament after testing positive for COVID-19 and going into a 10-day isolation.
Perisic saved Croatia with his equaliser in the 1-1 draw against Czech Republic and also scored late in the 3-1 win over Scotland, set up by a deadly corner from 35-year-old Modric.
Spain's players know Modric all too well after nine magical seasons with Real Madrid although they will not be able to count on any inside information on the midfielder as Luis Enrique decided not to include any Real players in his squad.
"He is their motor, the heartbeat of Croatia who conducts their orchestra. All their play goes through his feet," Olmo added. "But Croatia is not just Modric."
Olmo also said that unlike Sweden, Poland and Slovakia, Croatia are likely to come out and attack Spain and not just defend, which could play into their hands after struggling in their first two group games.
Olmo, who moved from Barcelona's academy to Dinamo in 2015 before signing for Bundesliga outfit RB Leipzig in 2020, also revealed that the Croatian federation had tried to get him to switch nationalities.
"There was some interest and I have a lot of affection for Croatia, but it was always my dream to play for Spain," he said.
Spain may benefit from a smoother pitch at Copenhagen's Parken Stadium, after complaining about the surface at Seville's La Cartuja. Being away from a sometimes impatient home crowd could also be a boon.
Spain were beaten 2-1 by Croatia in the Euro 2016 group stage and then hammered them 6-0 in the UEFA Nations League in 2018, only to lose 3-2 away from home two months later.
The 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia will also be missing centre back Dejan Lovren through suspension, with Duje Caleta-Car set to take his place.
Caleta-Car said Croatia must improve defensively after conceding in each of their three group matches.
"We've let in some soft goals as we haven't been compact enough. Against Spain we have to keep it airtight in the midfield and at the back in order to close them down," he told reporters on Saturday.
Midfielder Mateo Kovacic added: "They know we are a good team too so it should be a cracking encounter. Spain have phenomenal midfield players, but we can match them in every department. We have to take the game to them."
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Additional reporting by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Christian Radnedge and William Mallard)