ELCHE, Spain (AFP) – Spain’s identity crisis looks to be well and truly over after Marco Asensio inspired a 6-0 thrashing of World Cup runners-up Croatia in the UEFA Nations League early yesterday.
Defeat to Russia in July prompted a change of coach and doubts about the Spanish passing style but after an impressive win over England at Wembley, Luis Enrique has now overseen a demolition of Croatia too.
Asensio’s two long-range shots, the second cannoning in off goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic, had Spain three up before half-time in Elche, after Saul Niguez had earlier headed home.
Croatia, abject at the back, were no better after the break. Asensio first threaded Rodrigo Moreno through to finish before supplying the corner for an unmarked Sergio Ramos to nod in number five.
Isco then flashed a sixth into the top corner, again Asensio the provider.
Two victories in four days mean Spain sit top of League A’s Group Two, with a six-point gap over both Croatia and England, who play each other in Rijeka next month.
Brushing aside two of the World Cup’s top four teams, and one so emphatically, sends out its own message, but just as satisfying for La Roja will be the sense of pride restored.
In particular, this display gave early vindication to Luis Enrique’s methods. Spain still dominated possession but they looked forward faster, pressed Croatia higher up and stretched them with balls wide and over the top.
There was no sign of the ponderous build-up that suffocated them against Russia at the World Cup. There was no sign either of Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta and David Silva, who all retired in the summer, and are not yet being missed.
Asensio was the star, his goal and trio of second-half assists fully justifying his start ahead of Iago Aspas.
But Saul, who shone against England, was excellent too in midfield, departing to a standing ovation at the Estadio Martinez Valero, in the town where he was born.
For Croatia, this was a humbling loss that leaves the current crop open to questions about how they sustain momentum following that superb run in Russia.
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, still at the top of their games, embraced Real Madrid and Barcelona team-mates in the tunnel and Croatia started brightly, with Ivan Santini missing two decent early chances from close range.
Spain were more clinical. Ramos wafted a ball out to Dani Carvajal whose stabbed cross was met brilliantly by the arriving Saul.
Asensio made it two with a crashing long-range drive and two minutes later, his left foot unleashed again, this one curling onto the bar and then in off the unfortunate Kalinic’s back.
Croatia looked stoney-faced as they emerged for the second half but there was no improvement, either in their intensity or defending.
Rodrigo raced clear and slotted through the legs of Kalinic before Ramos headed in, unchallenged from eight yards.
Isco added a late flourish, receiving a pass from Asensio inside the box. He feigned to go one way but pushed the ball the other, before slamming it into the top corner to complete the rout.
Beating two of the World Cup’s semi-finalists in four days leaves Spain top of League A’s Group Two in the Nations League.
But, perhaps more importantly, it should also give the players belief in Luis Enrique’s methods.
“It would be very easy to say that this is my Spain, generating many chances and conceding few goals, but the truth is that I am changing things very fast,” Luis Enrique said.
“This week everything was perfect.”
Spain were barely recognisable from the team that failed to break down Russia in the last 16 but it should also be said they put six past Argentina, under Julen Lopetegui, in March. There is work still to do.
“Comparisons with the World Cup and tonight do not make sense,” Luis Enrique said. “Today we were very effective and everything went wonderfully well. They had an early chance, they didn’t take it and then we played brilliantly and scored some great goals.”