Substitute Jesus Navas scored a late winner in Gdansk on Monday as title holders Spain laboured to a 1-0 win over Croatia for a place in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals as group C winners.
Navas struck into the empty net after nice work from Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta in the 88th minute, after Croatia were denied a penalty in the first half and Ivan Rakitic saw a point-blank header parried by Iker Casillas in the 58th.
Spain topped group C with seven points from Italy (five), who beat Ireland 2-0 in the day’s other game in Poznan. Croatia (four points) and Ireland (zero) were eliminated.
Spain will face either France, England or Ukraine in the quarterfinals on Saturday in Donetsk, Ukraine.
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque fielded the same starting team -- including Fernando Torres -- that thrashed Ireland 4-0 on Thursday, while Croatia’s Slaven Bilic brought on Danijel Pranjic and Domagoj Vida for Ivan Perisic and Nikica Jelavic.
Physical Croatia managed to contain Spain deep in midfield early on, allowing the champions no clear-cut chances.
Iniesta’s 12th-minute shot was too weak to upset Stipe Pletikosa and the goalkeeper was also on his guard against a tight-angle shot from Torres.
Spain’s frustration somewhat showed a minute later, when Sergio Ramos tried his luck from some 25 metres out, a rare occurrence in the Spanish game, which is based on swift and short passing.
The Real Madrid defender Ramos was even the centre of attention in the 27th when his lunging challenge on the right edge of the penalty area on Mario Mandzukic should have given Croatia a penalty.
But their appeals -- justified as television replays indicated -- were in vain as German referee Wolfgang Stark only awarded a corner kick.
Croatia then had the biggest chance to score in the 58th, a result that would have sent the title holders packing. Tottenham’s Luka Modric stormed down the right wing and sent a floating cross to Ivan Rakitic, whose thumping header from point-blank range at the far left side was brilliantly saved by Iker Casillas.
Del Bosque brought on Navas for Torres and Barcelona’s Fabregas also came on, and the substitutions paid off late in the game.
Fabregas chipped the ball over the Croatia defence to Iniesta, who just managed to control it with his left shoulder and fed Navas for the easiest of tap-ins with Pletikosa stranded between the two.