Defending champs Spain seal last-gasp win

Spain's Gerard Pique celebrates his team's win over the Czech Republic at UEFA Euro 2016 Photograph:( Getty )

Reuters Toulouse Jun 14, 2016, 05.33 AM (IST)
Spain huffed and puffed, making hard work of their Euro 2016 opener before a late Gerard Pique goal blew away the Czech Republic resistance. Yet the win could not conceal the fact that Vicente del Bosque's champions may be lacking a killer instinct.

Until defender Pique's crucial late header, the holders were again largely ineffective in front of goal, just as they had been in their 1-0 loss to Georgia in their final warm-up game last week.

Spain had three-quarters of the possession up until the interval and played most of the game in the Czech half, but still did not have the wit or invention to break down their more limited opponents.

By the end, the champions had hit the target just five times in their 17 attempts, with Pique's 87th-minute header from a superb Andres Iniesta cross eventually sparing them blushes.

It left Spain's coach Vicente del Bosque with an increasingly familiar headache. "It's true that we dominate but we still struggle in front of goal," he sighed afterwards.

The most important thing for the coach was that this was at least an improvement on Spain's last three opening games at major tournaments: a defeat in the 2014 World Cup by the Netherlands, a draw with Italy in Euro 2012 and a loss in the 2010 World Cup to Switzerland.

They started with a sense of urgency and were most effective when they had David Silva and Jordi Alba stretching the Czech team on the flanks. That enabled them to create the first real opening of the game, with Silva's cross from the right finding Alvaro Morata in the box but his first-touch shot was kept out by the ever-excellent Petr Cech.

Problems started for Spain when Silva and Alba started drifting inside, flooding the central area of the pitch and making the champions too predictable.

Still, they should have gone into the break ahead but were denied by some terrific work from Cech, who managed to stop Morata twice.

"We would have seen a different game had one of our chances in the opening half gone in," reckoned Spain captain Sergio Ramos.

Morata was replaced by Aritz Aduriz in the 62nd minute but he could do little with Spain continuing to produce long spells of possession without any incisive intent or penetration.

Eventually, though, one moment of sheer star quality shone through. Andres Iniesta, still a twinkle-toed Fred Astaire of the modern game at 32, unfurled one curling, inch-perfect cross that simply demanded a thumping Pique finish.

"This is who we are," the Barcelona maestro Iniesta declared afterwards. "We have achieved so much success because of our style of play. We have played games like this one and it's just a case of trying and trying, until the ball goes in."

The problem is that the wait for those goals is incerasingly becoming a test of the Spain supporters' nerves and patience.