Modrić, Croatia fall to Spain in Nations League final penalty shootout

In front of a hugely pro-Croatian crowd in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, Spain topped Luka Modrić & Co. in a penalty shootout to win the 2022-23 UEFA Nations League and claim its first international trophy since 2012.

Here are three takeaways from the match.

Spain does it again against Croatia

After a scoreless 90 minutes, you had to like Croatia’s chances. Extra time has been famously kind to the Checkered Ones at each of the last two World Cups. In 2018, the Croats became the first team to win three knockout matches in the extra session or on spot kicks. Last fall in Qatar, they advanced twice in the same fashion.

La Roja, on the other hand, have earned a reputation for struggling mightily outside of regular time, getting eliminated in both of those tournaments and at the last European Championship, when they fell to eventual winner Italy.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Before succumbing to the Azzurri two years ago, Spain won two do-or-die Euro 2020 matches after the initial 90 minutes were up. One was a quarterfinal shootout victory over Switzerland. The other? A 5-3 triumph over these came Croatians.

Both teams’ rosters have changed significantly since then. But the outcome on Sunday was the same, even after Spain squandered its first opportunity to win the tiebreaker when central defender Aymeric Laporte clattered what would’ve been the decisive attempt off the underside of the crossbar.

Still, La Roja held their nerve. And after another Croatian player, striker Bruno Petković, saw his shot turned aside by Unai Simón, Dani Carvajal stepped up to give Spain the title with an audacious chip that left keeper Dominik Livaković grasping at air:

Heartbreak, again, for Luka Modrić

In what could well be his final international match, Modrić’s teammates wanted to send their longtime captain off by winning the first trophy in the country’s history. And the diminutive captain certainly did his part, expertly burying his spot kick after turning in the sort of polished, both-sides-of-the-ball performance over 120 minutes that fans around the world have come to expect from Real Madrid’s magical 37-year-old playmaker.

Alas, the storybook ending – if this was indeed Modrić’s swansong – wasn’t to be.

Croatia may be the best team on the planet pound-for-pound; the tiny country of under four million has come preposterously close to glory in recent years by upsetting a murderers’ row of heavyweights, advancing to the World Cup final in 2018 and then reaching the semis in Qatar.

The main reason why Croatia has been able to punch above its weight so consistently has been Modrić. With this one decided by the slimmest margin possible, Sunday’s defeat will hurt as much as any other if his 17-year international career really is over. In time, though, this latest in another long line of deep runs will only cement the classy maestro’s legacy as one of the greatest players of his generation.

The beautiful game this wasn’t

Maybe it was to be expected after the longest European club season ever – one that for the first time included a World Cup smack in the middle of it – but the truth is that Saturday’s finale was mostly a dud.

Despite the collection of top-class talent fielded by both teams (both Croatia and Spain had players who competed in last week’s Champions League final), this was a choppy, oddly sloppy, defensive affair from start to finish. Neither team played up to its considerable ability. Genuine scoring opportunities were scant for either side. When good looks on goal did materialize, the finish just wasn’t there. Spain took 13 shots before actually putting one of them on-target:

One could blame the nature of international soccer, where players are thrown together and then have to compete in high-stakes games for their countries with only a few training sessions to prepare.

Or maybe the stakes were the culprit. Fans have been spoiled in recent years with high-scoring, end-to-end finales. The epic 2022 World Cup decider comes to mind. Six goals were also scored four years earlier, when Croatia lost 4-2 to France. The 2021 Nations League final featured three goals, all scored within a six-minute spell in the second half, with Spain’s lone strike sandwiched between the two converted by the eventual champion Les Bleus.

This one was more of a traditional title game, a cagey affair where both teams defended first and hoped to capitalize on a mistake by the other side that would ultimately determine the outcome. And while this match did open up a bit in extra time as both teams pressed for a winner, neither could manage to score the goal that would’ve prevented the game from being decided in the cruelest fashion of all.

Not that Spain will care.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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