FINISHED SECOND: Spain stars. CREDIT: Sourced

European champions Spain are on the hard road to defending their title.

The 2-1 defeat by Croatia on Tuesday night means the 2008 and 2012 winners must face old rivals Italy in the round of 16, in a repeat of the last tournament’s final.

If Spain get past Italy then world champions Germany are potential quarterfinal opponents, while France and England also lie in wait as possible semifinal opposition.

After Alvaro Morata had given the 2010 World Cup winners a seventh-minute lead, the Croats hit back with a goal from Nikola Kalinic, before Ivan Perisic hit a late winner.

Skipper Sergio Ramos missed a penalty that would have given his side a 2-1 lead.

And he admits that things have gotten a whole lot tougher for la Furia Roja.

The defender says: “We dominated early and had chances to extend our lead. I had a chance to put my team ahead and unfortunately I couldn’t convert. It wasn’t to be. They had a counter-attack which ended up in a goal.

“Now we will face a more difficult rival than if we had finished first in our group. 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.”

“Unfortunately, we can’t choose our own path now, which we could have done had we been first.”

Meanwhile, England midfielder Eric Dier believes other countries will dread the prospect of facing the Three Lions in the Euro 2016 knockout rounds, despite his side’s failure to secure top spot in Group B.

After a goalless stalemate against Slovakia on Monday, England were overtaken by Wales and will next face whoever finishes second in Group F out of Hungary, Iceland, Portugal or Austria in a Round of 16 tie in Nice next Monday.

The Spurs man says: “Of course we couldn’t win them all but in general our play has been very positive, and I am sure there are plenty who won’t want to face us.

“We shouldn’t be fearful of anyone... that’s the wrong word.”