Croatia did not find themselves in serious trouble in the first two games of the EHF EURO, but their woes were on display against Sweden, as the Nordic side enjoyed a comfortable 35:31 (17:12) win against the hosts.
Therefore, after an initial loss against Iceland, the Swedish side got back on track and will start the main round with four points, with Croatia following them with two points.
"For this victory it was crucial that we have believed in ourselves and that we had a good start. We played an agressive defence. We were running like animals today in counter attacks and we punished them. I think that was the key," Swedish right wing Niclas Ekberg said. "It's great to win over the host of the tournament but for us, it was just a match. Of course, it is a great feeling. The opponent doesn't matter as long as we win the games. We are moving on with four points, and that's the most important."
Serbia also benefit from Sweden’s success, as the “Orlovi” will follow Sweden and Croatia in Group I of the main round, which will take place in Zagreb.
Croatia looked to hold all the cards before the game against Sweden: an immaculate record, a fiery Spaladium Arena behind them and one of the most consistent teams in the EHF EURO.
And for six minutes, everything looked in place, as Luka Cindric continued to deliver his magic in the playmaker position, while Ivan Cupic beat Swedish goalkeeper Anders Palicka twice.
But a dire picture quickly started to unravel for Croatia. A seven-minute scoreless run saw Sweden take control of the game with a 5:0 run, with four goals scored by experienced right wing Niclas Ekberg.
It went from bad to worse for the hosts, their weaknesses there on display for everyone to see. A 15% save percentage from their two goalkeepers in the first half did not help, neither did the lack of firepower from their backs, as Domagoj Duvnjak was sorely missed.
Therefore, it was no surprise that a 74% shot efficiency in the first half lifted Sweden to a 17:12 spectacular lead after the first 30 minutes.
Cupic ties Balic for most goals scored
While the raucous attendance in the Spaladium Arena were still thinking about a comeback, their hopes were quashed by the home side’s atrocious defence and the aloof attack.
There was no stopping the relentless Swedish attack, as the Croatian side did little to trouble it, with 11 outfield players scoring for the Nordic side.
Backed by a superb Ivan Cupic, who scored seven times to tie the legendary Ivano Balic as the EHF EURO top scorer for Croatia with 151 goals, the hosts could not manage to cut the difference to less than four goals.
''They [Sweden] were better in all aspects of the match. They had a better defence, better goalkeepers, better attackers, more fluid ball transition. They controlled the match from the first until the last minute, and we need to congratulate them for that," Croatian right wing Cupic said.
''We were trying, changing what we could, but did not manage to make a comeback. We did not play a good defence tonight, it was too wide, neither 6-0 nor 5-1 functioned. They played very calmly in the attack, got their game right and did not fall under pressure. They dominated the match in every sphere and took the deserved two points," Cupic added.
It was the worst-ever defensive performance for Croatia in 87 EHF EURO matches, with the 35 received goals surpassing their previous record by one goal, as goalkeepers Ivan Stevanovic and Ivan Pesic saved only six shots between them.
While it may have looked impossible after their alarming performance against Iceland, Sweden have built a two-game winning streak to start the main round Group I from the first place, tied with four points along France.
Croatia will have little room for error against France, Norway and Belarus, as they are already two points behind the two leaders.