Spain’s Álvaro Morata finds something extra to beat Croatia in thriller

This was a scoreline from another age and a match for the ages, a wild, thunderous and implausible afternoon that went from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again. It left the people up here as exhausted as the players were down there, struggling to remember everything that had happened but certain that they would never forget the way it made them feel. The kind of match that left many questions, including: how do you explain it? Where do you even start with this?

With the score: 5-3? With the 35 shots? With the fact that Spain won, securing a place in the quarter-final? Or the fact that they had to win twice? With Croatia’s implausible revival? With the noise, the occasion, the nerves? With the quality, and there was plenty of that? With the heart, of which there was even more? With the silliness, because there was some of that too? How about with the goal that ultimately brought this to an end perhaps, finally carrying Spain through a storm?

Only, at that moment – when, with the clock on 99 minutes, Álvaro Morata of all people brought the ball down with his right foot and smashed a sensational shot into the net with his left to send beer flying through the air and teammates and staff sprinting off the bench running in ever increasing circles of delirium – no one in this place would allow themselves to believe it was really over.

Sure, Spain led 4-3 in extra time and, yes, with tiredness taking hold and the pitch feeling bigger by the second, ultimately there was no way back for Croatia this time. But there were still 21 minutes to go for them to try and nobody doubted they would do that or even that they might succeed. Stranger things have happened, after all. Stranger things had already happened here, in fact. Strange, almost surreal, brilliant things. So many of them.

And so, where to? Perhaps to the next goal that really did end it, Mikel Oyarzabal scoring the eighth goal? Except that Spain had led by two before and been caught. Unai Simón’s sensational save at 3-3, his redemption revealed as the turning point? One of many, anyway. To the extraordinary impact made by Mislav Orsic, who scored his first international goal and whose countrymen will surely wish had been on the pitch throughout this astonishing afternoon? César Azpilicueta scoring his first? Pedri, the youngest player ever to play at this stage and one who graced it so gloriously?

Or maybe you go back to the very start and the most bizarre own goal, scored by Pedri but attributed to Simón? The problem there is that by the time this game ended – both sets of supporters singing having shared something special, Croatia’s fans still able to cling to the pride at having taken part despite the devastation of defeat – that felt like such a long time ago. Too much had happened since, although they couldn’t work out how exactly.

What had happened, in short, was this: Croatia went 1-0 up, Pedri’s back pass somehow slipping past Simón’s right boot and into the goal, a moment so unexpected some Spain players didn’t even see it but they heard it, their sights trained up the pitch. Spain then imposed a clear superiority that should have seen them lead already and was eventually expressed when Pablo Sarabia equalised just before half time, Azpilicueta headed Spain in front and Ferrán Torres added a third to end it on 77 minutes.

Except that Croatia refused to let it end there; this is not the team it was in Russia, but nor is it a team that gives up. There is character there, and no little quality. And so, somehow, they found they way into this, a wonderful Luka Modric run culminating in the ball being bundled just over the line by Orsic on 85. A late substitute, Orsic then delivered a gorgeous cross from which Mario Pasalic headed in a dramatic equaliser on 92 minutes, this place erupting. Spain appeared denied once again, unable to fathom what was happening to them.

All the more so when Orsic, not done yet, even set up a wonderful chance for Croatia to lead at the start of extra time. This time though Simón to make a save as difficult to comprehend as the whole thing had been, one that may yet set up their entire tournament. Not least because that was when Dani Olmo’s superb cross found Morata and he, the man who has been whistled by his own fans, went and did that. A glorious goal, a moment that will live long in the memory. And then a few minutes later, Oyarzabal made it 5-3.

And that, football fans, is the condensed version, just the basic facts. “As for the headline, I’ve got one for you,” Luis Enrique said afterwards. “Enjoy football.” There is not enough space on this page, nor sufficient words to express how much everyone had, all that had happened, the emotions conjured up, the craziness of it all. “Football bloody hell,” a wise man once said, and even that stops short. In the end, there were embraces, looks of disbelief, laughter too, and tears, so many tears. Maybe justice had been done – except that justice, and joy, would have been them coming back and doing this again tomorrow same time, same place. In the end, only Spain went through but somehow that mattered less than the fact that they had all been there for a story they will be telling for years – if they can work out where to start.