BORDEAUX • If Spain are to retain their European Championship title, they are going to have to do it the hard way.
A complacent second-half performance on Tuesday saw them beaten to first place in Group D, losing 1-2 to a vibrant Croatia team.
Ivan Perisic's late goal sent the holders on what looks like a hazardous path that would see them having to overcome Italy in the round of 16.
Already qualified after winning their first two games, Spain dominated the first half-hour, taking an early lead through Alvaro Morata, but they paid the price for a loss of intensity and urgency thereafter.
They defended poorly and conceded an equaliser to Nikola Kalinic in first-half stoppage time.
Spain captain Sergio Ramos, wasted a chance to restore their lead in the second half, when his penalty was saved by Danijel Subasic.
But fingers are more likely to be pointed at defender Gerard Pique and goalkeeper David de Gea for Croatia's winning goal in the 87th minute, as Perisic beat the goalkeeper at his near post.
Pique and Ramos had a night to forget at the heart of their defence. So did de Gea behind them.
Subasic a hero? Refs fail to spot his illegal penalty save
PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Danijel Subasic was the hero for Croatia after saving a 72nd-minute penalty - but it should surely have been retaken.
How the referee or his assistant standing on the goal-line failed to spot that the Croatia goalkeeper was at least three metres off his line (above) before Spain captain Sergio Ramos struck the spot kick was beyond belief.
It proved a turning point as 15 minutes later, with only three minutes to go, Ivan Perisic scored the goal that gave Croatia victory and top spot in the group.
Midfielders Sergio Busquets and even Andres Iniesta were some way from their most influential.
It was a careless, complacent all-round display from Spain.
"We can't blame (de Gea)," Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said. "The first one (goal) was from close range, the second from a counter-attack. We have lost - all of us have lost. We are all to blame."
Plenty within the Spanish media were willing to pin the blame for their defeat - their first in this tournament since 2004 - on del Bosque, whom they felt should have done more to freshen up his team to preserve energy levels and increase motivation since their place in the knockout stage had already been secured.
He named an unchanged side and witnessed a stale performance.
The coach later admitted that Spain's task looks considerably harder.
"There was silence in the locker room as nobody likes to lose," he said. "I think we played fairly well but we had this dip in concentration in the final minutes.
"Now we have to be ready for Italy, because we are still in the competition, even if not on the side of the draw we wanted to be on."
Although it was a first defeat in 15 matches at the Euros for Spain since they lost to Portugal in 2004, they did recover from an opening defeat by Switzerland to win the 2010 World Cup.
"We've won the right still to be in the competition," said del Bosque. "I'm not going to defend the performance excessively but we haven't played badly and I don't really have any complaints about the players."
Asked about the choice of penalty taker after Ramos missed, the coach said there was a group of players and "the one who has the most confidence takes it".
Ramos acknowledged that his poor kick had given Spain a harder path to follow if they are to win a record third straight European Championship.
Minutes of European Championship football Spain played since they last conceded a goal, scored by Antonio di Natale of Italy at Euro 2012
Spain's first Euros defeat since 2004
"Now we will face a more difficult rival than if we had finished first in our group," he said. "We need to turn the page. We have to learn from this game. I've always said that you have to beat the best if we want to be champions."
If Spain get past Italy, world champions Germany are potential quarter-final opponents, while France and England also lie in wait as possible semi-final opposition.
THE TIMES, LONDON, REUTERS