Croatia failed to proceed to the semi-final of the EHF EURO for the first time in 16 years, ending a run of seven consecutive appearances in the final weekend, after losing 30:27 (19:13) to France.
The hosts, backed by a full house in Arena Zagreb, never managed to fix the damage caused by France’s six-goal lead, 19:13, at half-time.
France proceed to the semi-finals with a perfect record, winning their first six games in an EHF EURO for the first time.
If Norway had scored one more goal against Sweden, Croatia would have been through, but the Norwegians 28:25 win meant Croatia needed at least a draw against France to secure their eighth consecutive place among the top four teams in Europe.
For 12 minutes, it really looked like Lino Cervar’s side could please the home fans in Arena Zagreb, who tried their best to intimidate the French side in attack. With Manuel Strlek and Luka Cindric in superb form, Croatia took a 7:6 lead, thanks to a 3:0 run, causing their support to go wild in the stands.
But disappointment and sorrow could be seen upon the Croatian faces after the closing minutes of the first half.
Sheer joy turned initially into anxiousness, then despair, as France started to run riot. An 8:3 run saw France open a four-goal gap, 14:10.
However, it was not the score which was most startling, rather Croatia’s failure to improve in both attack and defence. As France fed themselves easy goals, six on them from fast breaks, Croatia turned the ball over eight times, six turnovers coming from Luka Cindric alone.
Flawless Strlek cannot keep Croatia afloat
Croatia needed at least a draw to proceed, but had a mountain to climb, trailing 19:13 at half-time.
However, Croatia never gave up and had the poise to mount a comeback and test France until the dying moments of the game. It was an unexpected revival, but a more aggressive defence and a flawless Manuel Strlek, who scored six times from as many shots, in attack brought the hosts back within a goal, 26:25, with only seven minutes to go.
A more composed French team, with ice in their veins, regrouped after a timeout and managed to win their sixth game in a row, 30:27, to set up a semi-final against Spain.
Nikola Karabatic celebrated becoming the player with the most appearances in the EHF EURO, 58, with a stellar win, which sets France as the team to beat in this tournament.
"The atmosphere was amazing, and my team is happy to win in these conditions, especially as the match was not easy. We played really well the whole match, both in defence and attack," said France right back Dika Mem.
Croatia will fight for fifth place against the Czech Republic on Friday at 15:30 hrs, before the semi-finals, in Arena Zagreb.
“We made mistakes tonight, but I think we lost our semi-final chance in the match against Sweden,” admitted Croatia's Manuel Strlek.