EURO 2016

Euro 2016: This time, Spain get a head start

Gerard Pique of Spain (second right) heading home the only goal of the match - and his fifth in total for his country - with just three minutes remaining in the Euro 2016 Group D encounter yesterday.
Gerard Pique of Spain (second right) heading home the only goal of the match - and his fifth in total for his country - with just three minutes remaining in the Euro 2016 Group D encounter yesterday. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Pique saves slow-starting champs, who toil against Czechs after stirring display by Cech

GROUP D

Spain 1

Czech Republic 0

TOULOUSE • For so long this looked like being another frustrating opening group game for Spain as they passed and probed without success. Yet with only three minutes remaining yesterday, the best player on the pitch carved out the chance that allowed Gerard Pique to head home.

Andres Iniesta's cross was duly converted and Spain are up and running in football's European Championship.

  • FIGURING OUT THE MATCH


    3

    Number of saves by Spain goalkeeper David de Gea (above), who has been named in connection to a sexual assault case but was named to start ahead of Iker Casillas.

    36

    Passes made by goalkeeper Petr Cech - more than any of his Czech Republic team-mates.

    600

    Minutes Spain have kept a clean sheet at the European Championship, the longest run in the tournament's history.

Several Czech players collapsed to the ground at the final whistle, the late goal too much to bear.

They had a few chances at the other end, notably when Cesc Fabregas cleared off the line midway through the second half, but Spain dominated and the only question was whether Vicente del Bosque's team could find a way to score.

Pique, with his fifth goal for his country, came up with the answer.

In some ways this looked like a restorative victory for Spain, which feels like a strange thing to say about the defending champions.

Yet, the memories of their implosion at the World Cup still linger, with this game taking place exactly two years to the day since they were hammered 5-1 by the Netherlands in Salvador, Brazil.

The Czech Republic were never going to inflict a similar defeat here but Pavel Vrba's side succeeded in making life difficult for Spain for long periods, aided by some fine goalkeeping from Petr Cech.

David de Gea, who was preferred to Iker Casillas in goal despite being named in connection with a sexual assault case on Friday, did not have a save to make until the 45th minute.

Spain, by the end of the first half, were growing a little exasperated and the sight of Sergio Ramos shooting from 35 metres, slipping over on his backside in the process, confirmed as much.

Not long before that, a Mexican wave had swept around the stadium - a tell-tale sign that all was not well on the pitch.

It was not that Spain were playing badly. Iniesta, the Man of the Match, showed some lovely touches, and the two full-backs, Juanfran and Jordi Alba, got in behind the Czech defence on several occasions, but there was a lack of conviction in front of goal when the chances came.

Alvaro Morata, the man tasked with filling the troublesome No. 9 position for Spain, had a couple of opportunities, but he shot straight at Cech. In the second half, it was more of the same from Spain.

Morata hit the upright and Nolito and Sergio Ramos had shots blocked as the Czech Republic's defending became desperate.

Yet Spain also were living dangerously and Roman Hubnik forced de Gea into a save low to his left.

And Fabregas, with de Gea stranded and Pavel Kaderabek waiting behind him to turn in Theodor Gebre Selassie's far-post header, superbly hooked clear from underneath his own crossbar.

By then, del Bosque had replaced Morata with Aritz Aduriz and Spain's search for a breakthrough had become more pressing.

It arrived in the 87th minute when Thiago Alcantara, another substitute, found Iniesta, whose perfectly flighted cross was met by the head of Pique.

"There's not a single solution to breaking down these teams," said Iniesta. "You have to keep pressing forward until you get what you want.

"The goal came the way it came - it just takes patience."

Vrba said: "It's disappointing to concede a goal so late. We could have scored ourselves, which doesn't often happen against Spain.

"We played at our maximum level and it is a shame not to get at least a point."

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2016, with the headline 'This time, Spain get a head start'. Print Edition | Subscribe