Croatia and Spain have both defeated Euro 2012's worst team in Ireland and drawn Italy, a team that was expected to play a conservative style would undoubtedly lead to a draw or two. They both have four points, and we've learned very little about both of them. On Monday, Croatia finally has to deal with an elite attacking side and Spain has to play against a back four that isn't poor, a midfielder that can launch counter attacks and a team that's dangerous on set pieces.
Italy haven't performed poorly in this tournament and certainly have some talent among their ranks, but Spain and Croatia will still provide each other with the toughest test that either team has seen so far. The Spaniards are heavy favorites and it would be stunning if they failed to at least draw, but this game is by no means a gimme for them.
Luka Modric will be Spain's biggest concern, and Vicente del Bosque will almost certainly be aware of exactly what happens when he's not specifically accounted for. Italy, inexplicably, didn't specifically assign a midfielder to pick him up, nor did they make it a priority as a group. Croatia controlled the second half of that game because of Modric, so don't be surprised if Sergio Busquets is narrowly focused on him, as opposed to simply sitting in a zone on the pitch.
On the other end, Croatia's central defenders will need to up their games. Their fullbacks have performed well thus far, but the center of their defense has been let off the hook by poor finishing by both Ireland and Italy. They might not be too concerned by a Spanish team that floods the midfield with a 4-6-0, but Fernando Torres was so good against Ireland that del Bosque is likely to stick with him and abandon the no-striker formation.
Torres has run extremely hot and cold for club and country over the last four months, which is a significant improvement over the previous 14 months, when he was consistently poor. He is among the best center forwards in the world at his best, and even though no one's seen his best for back-to-back games since just before his 2010 knee injury, he appears to have something left in the tank.
Spain will likely be the aggressive versions of themselves in the early going, while Croatia are likely to put nine men behind the ball, then look to find their center forwards quickly when they win the ball back, but it might not stay like that for the entirety of the game. Consider that a draw against Spain is a fantastic result for Croatia and that Spain hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over Italy. Spain have not been averse to passing the ball in circles, doing little to attack the goal when it suits them. If Italy don't lay a royal beatdown on Ireland, a draw could send both Croatia and Spain through to the knockout stage.
Croatia could also push Luka Modric up the pitch in an attempt to pack their midfield, withdrawing one of Mario Mandzukic or Nikica Jelavic, more likely the latter. Against a Spain team that's so dominant in the middle, it makes sense, but so many of Croatia's best attacks have come from the two strikers' exchanges with each other.
No one's going to start the match playing for a handshake draw, but everyone has mobile phones with internet access in this day and age, and both managers will know exactly what's going on in the other game. At some point, there might not be any incentive for either team to commit numbers forward and incur any kind of defensive risk, and that's when apparent "handshake" draws happen.
Projected Croatia Lineup (4-4-1-1): Stipe Pletikosa; Ivan Strinic, Gordon Schildenfeld, Vedran Corluka, Darijo Srna; Ivan Rakitic, Tomislav Dujmovic, Ognjen Vukojevic, Ivan Perisic; Luka Modric; Mario Mandzukic
Monty the Psychic Metal Disk says: I have been bribed into declaring this a 2-2 draw.
Game Date/Time: Monday, June 18th, 2:15 p.m. ET, 8:15 p.m. local
Venue: PGE Arena Gdansk, Gdansk, Poland
TV: ESPN (U.S. - English), ESPN Deportes (U.S. - Spanish), BBC Three (U.K.), TSN 2 (Canada)
We'll have live coverage of both of Monday's games simultaneously in our Euro 2012, Group C Finale StoryStream. For more on Euro 2012 and the entire world of football, follow @SBNationSoccer on twitter.