Spain qualify for Tokyo 2020 after winning European Handball Championship

Spain made it two in a row in the EHF Euro 2020 against a Croatian side in a cliffhanger final

By Ken Browne

Spain are European champions again after an explosive final against Croatia in Stockholm, Sweden.

The final score was 22-20 (12-11) to Spain.

The first team to successfully defend their title since Sweden back in 2002 has also qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, after this 'golden generation' failed to qualify for Rio 2016.

The Tele2 Arena in Stockholm was packed to bursting to watch an end-to-end final that Spain edged in a game of fine margins.

Both Croatia and Spain came into the final unbeaten after seven victories each and one draw when they met each other in the group stage in January.

In the end Spain's game management and superior shooting were the difference, their efficiency in front of goal incredible, waiting for the perfect moment to pull the trigger.

Alex Gomez Abello was the perfect example, with a 100% record scoring 5/5.

Other Spanish heroes were Alex Dujshebaev who scored a goal worth gold to make it 21-20 in the final moments and the soul of the side Jorge Maqueda Pena who led from the beginning.

Special mention has to go to Spanish goalkeeper Gonzalo Perez de Vargas too who came up with some crucial moments.

"It's so many emotions at the same time, we didn't deserve to miss out on Rio two years ago... we've worked hard for this" - Gonzalo Perez de Vargas

Advantage Spain at halftime

A boisterous predominantly Croatian crowd roared on every goal and tried to intimidate the Spanish side. But to no avail.

The first half finished 12-11 in favour of Spain with Croatia leading for large parts of the first period.

Croatia's Domagoj Duvnjak was their man-of-the-match in that dramatic last-minute semi-final win over Norway and he led the line again in the first half, scoring four goals from seven shots.

Duvnjak would finish the game as MVP of the final too, but his efforts just weren't enough to carry Croatia to victory.

The spirit of the Spanish side was Jorge Maqueda Pena who netted three in the first half, pumping his fists and shouting 'Vamos!' to his own team and the outnumbered Spanish fans in the stands.

Spanish squad rotation would pay off at the end of each half and a telling statistic from the first half was that Croatia had five different scorers while Spain had nine.

Spain outlast Croatian challenge

At the beginning of the second half Croatia were penalised and down a man for two mintues and the Spanish made them pay.

Two goals in an empty net saw Spain stretch their lead to 16-12.

But Croatia refused to double, continuing with the risk of an empty net.

A brilliant penalty shot from Zlatko Horvat and a blaster from Duvnjak that clocked 111km/h brought it back to 16-14 to keep them within touching distance.

When Igor Karacic scored from a fast break to make it 16-15 the Croatian fans were on their feet again, bouncing and singing and willing their team on.

Spain stuck to the task, Alex Dujshebaev was clinical and Adrian Figueras found the corner top right.

Again the Croats would not go away, and suddenly it was 18-18 with ten minutes to play.

But the Spaniard's greater precision and calm under pressure eventually won the day.

The 'Hispanos' settled it in a thrilling final minute when Alex Dujshebaev struck again with 25 seconds on the clock to open a two-goal lead, before Gonzalo Perez de Vargas came up with a huge stop on Croatia's final attempt.

Digging deep

Spain trusted the squad and used the bench much better, ending up with 11 scorers to Croatia's 8.

The defending champs gave their first line sufficient rest and it showed as Spain had that little bit extra at the end of each half.

A big turning point was when goalkeeper de Vargas, who was just announced European goalkeeper of the year, came on to replace Rodrigo Corrales after around 17 minutes.

The Spanish rallied, turning a three-goal deficit into a one-goal advantage at half time.

"We played a team that is very similar to us in terms of personality," said de Vargas, "I think we were just that bit fresher.."

Spain's captain Raul Entrerrios played his 60th EHF EURO game, only France's Nikola Karabatic has played more.

It was an emotional post-match interview from the 38-year-old:

"It's difficult to describe what I feel. I'm so happy, I feel such great pride for this group of players who've worked so hard over the years."

This was the Asturian's take on the game:

"It was a very even game, difficult to break open, with the scoreboard always close. We were patient, consistent and just got that pinch of luck."

The relief at banishing the ghost of Rio was palpable:

"It hasn't always been easy for this group, we've had some hard yards and we all know why. Now we're qualified for the Olympics... Vamos!" - Spanish captain Raul Entrerrios

Bayern Munich footballer Ivan Perisic was in the crowd to support his national team, as was the Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, but they'll have to wait to celebrate a Croatian victory.

Croatia made their first final in 10 years here in Sweden, losing on that occasion to France.

For Spain it's two in a row and dreams of winning a first ever Olympic gold in Tokyo very much alive.