Despite one-way traffic and 70% possession Spain needed a late Pique winner to bag three points
Spain predictably dominated the match stats against Czech Republic in their Group D opener, but the score-sheet did not reflect the dominance of the reigning European champions in Toulouse.
It required a late Gerard Pique winner in the 87th minute for Vicente del Bosque’s side to finally beat a brilliant Petr Cech, as Andres Iniesta shone for the victors whilst key front man Alvaro Morata misfired.
Spain have the opportunity to win an unprecedented third successive European championships here in France, but memories of their woeful World Cup campaign in Brazil two years ago still linger and the squad that once ruled tournament football has clearly reached a period of transition. On today’s evidence their goalscoring threat is a worry, with Morata, Jordi Alba and David Silva all missing glorious chances to give La Roja the lead in a game where they could have been out of sight. Morata was replaced late on by veteran striker Aritz Aduriz from the bench, who went close with an overhead kick and threatened to upstage the younger man who had been favoured to lead Spain’s attack. The omissions of the likes of Fernando Torres and Diego Costa could be a rod for Del Bosque’s back if the lack of clinical finishing continues.
But all is well that ends well and if Spain can see off group underdogs Turkey next they will secure a place in the last 16 before they take on their toughest rivals in the group Croatia in the final fixture. Given the performance of Germany on Sunday evening however and the home advantage of the French, Spain do not look like tournament winners right now. Belgium and Italy meet in a heavyweight clash later this evening.
Pundits continue to fawn over their possession – 74% against the Czechs in the first half – but is their emphasis on that one facet of their game a concern when they lack potency in front of goal. As evidenced by Leicester in the Premier League last season, and relatively by Northern Ireland in their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, possession isn’t all conquering and there are teams who can exploit playing without the ball and making the most of their opportunities on the break.
Credit should also be given the Czechs however, who made life tough for this Spanish side despite offering little in terms of going forward themselves. They had a few chances – memorably when Cesc Fàbregas cleared the ball off the line in the second half – but they were few and far between.
Cech kept them in it, rolling back the years to produce a number of fine saves but also embarrassingly making more passes in the match than any other Czech Republic player with 36. It was fitting however that when the deadlock was finally broken, it was the best player on the pitch that was the catalyst.
It was Pique who would score but he was aided massively by Iniesta, who floated across a delightful ball for the central defender to head home at the back post. It capped off a man-of-the-match display from the midfield maestro, who like Toni Kroos a day earlier hit barely a misplaced pass and proved to be the difference.