Spain, the two-times champions of Europe and current holders, eased past the Czech Republic in Toulouse this afternoon in their opening game of Euro 2016. In a game short on exciting moments, Spain ground out a win that puts them in a good position to qualify for the knockout stages whilst the Czechs were left to ponder what might have been.
Spain dominated the first half, both in terms of possession and chances but the half lacked a spark and both teams were largely restricted to long shots and half chances.
The Czechs were clearly second best and struggled to keep the ball. Their attacks were primarily restricted to long balls played up to Necid to hold up, as well as attempting to break after Spanish set-pieces.
Most of the early chances fell to Spain, who were playing the ball well in front of the massed Czech defence. In the thirteenth minute, Spain won a free-kick 25 yards from goal. Fabregas whipped the ball towards the far post and found the head of Sergio Ramos, but under pressure Ramos could only head wide.
This marked a spell of concerted pressure from Spain and a minute later they could have taken the lead. The ball was played out to David Silva on the right of the box, who then whipped the ball at pace across the six-yard box. Alvaro Morata attacked the ball and managed to get ahead of his man only to shoot straight at Cech from six yards out. Morata did well to get to the ball but should have buried his chance and it was a let off for the Czech Republic who were being opened up at will.
Central to Spain’s attacks was Iniesta who played fantastically from the centre of the pitch, moving the ball majestically and threading passes through to Morata and Nolito. His play was summed up in the nineteenth minute as he made a pinpoint pass through to Jordi Alba on the left of the Czech box, only for the ball to be put out for a corner.
The final chance of this period of dominance from Spain fell to David Silva, who looked good in midfield but seemed ponderous when shown a chance to shoot. Juanfran took on and beat a Czech defender on the right of the box before feeding Silva with an excellent ball. All Silva had to do was beat Cech but he hesitated and the Arsenal keeper was able to easily smother the ball at Silva’s feet.
As the half wore on, the Czechs grew into the game and were able to restrict Spain to long range efforts. Ramos, Iniesta and Busquets all blazed over as Spain struggled to break down the Czechs. Hubnik and Sivok in the Czech defence were particularly impressive and were always first to any high balls into the Czech box. However, the Czech Republic lacked attacking intent, failing to force De Gea into any saves of note until the 44th minute, when Necid turned Juanfran well before firing a tame effort straight at De Gea.
Half time came as a relief for many, as stalemate had been reached between the two sides. But that almost changed immediately after the restart as Morata broke into the Czech box and fired the ball across the goalmouth. Hubnik got in the way of the ball but had his heart in his mouth as his touch nearly put the ball into his own net.
Spain then enjoyed a series of corners but could not make their pressure count. More chances were just around the corner though. First Nolito, who did not have a great game on the left for Spain, broke free on the left and put the ball across Petr Cech’s goalmouth but no Spain players were up with him and it came to nothing. Moments later Iniesta put Morata through, but he was correctly flagged offside.
The Czech Republic players were not enjoying much time on the ball and were wasteful when they did get a chance. They were clearly being more adventurous than they had been in the first half but the quality of their passing let them down and they quickly ran out of steam.
Meanwhile, Spain continued to push, with Silva finding Morata inside the six-yard box again but again Morata was unable to bury his chance and this time he didn’t even manage to hit the target. It was no surprise when he was replaced by Aduriz on 61 minutes.
Spain’s wayward finishing in front of goal was setting themselves up for a sucker punch and the Czech’s very nearly delivered it on 56 minutes when a Krejci free kick found Hubnik in the centre of the box. Unfortunately for the Czechs, Hubnik didn’t get a proper connection on his shot and De Gea dealt well with the ball.
This seemed to raise the Czech Republic players and in the following five minutes they had a reasonable period of pressure on Spain, with Tomas Rosicky at the heart of two impressive counter-attacks. One in particular nearly led to a chance for the Czech Republic, but Gebre Selassie fouled Sergio Ramos whilst trying to intercept a back pass in the Spain box.
Soon after the Czech Republic forced a corner and created their best chance of the game. The corner was put dangerously into the box, Gebre Selassie headed the ball back across goal and a Czech player was on hand to tap home but Fabregas stole in and prevented a certain goal by clearing the ball from under the bar.
At the other end, Aduriz was making a good impression on the game, being much more direct and effective than Morata. He twice went close, firing just wide. He also went close with an overhead kick, although he was clearly offside.
Having had an ineffective outing, Nolito was replaced by Chelsea’s Pedro on 81 minutes. Pedro gave a better outlet for Spain on the left and his contribution to the cause was felt in the 86th minute. The ball was recycled from right to left by Silva to Pedro. Pedro fed a simple through ball to Iniesta, who looked up and whipped a ball to the centre of the goal where Pique was lurking to place an excellent header past Petr Cech.
Spain finally had a reward for their almost total domination of the game and the relief in the stands and amongst the players was palpable. At the same time the Czech players seemed broken after having put up a very good fight for the previous 85 minutes. Rosicky was hauled off and was clearly frustrated at his country’s impending defeat.
Spain were seemingly content to see the game out for a 1-0 win and played the ball simply around their back line but the Czechs had now sent everyone forward. They stole the ball on the left of the pitch and worked the ball into the box to Darida, who took a touch in space in the box but fired directly at De Gea who did well to keep the ball out.
With that, the game petered out and Spain had gained their first win of the tournament. Spain will play better than this but they did just about enough to get the win. Czech Republic on the other hand played well but will need to be more enterprising in their future games if they want to qualify for the knockout stages.
Man of the Match: Andres Iniesta
At the heart of everything Spain did in the first half, he recycled play well, picked out some fantastic passes and even tried a few shots. He had a quieter second half when compared to his own high standards but then popped up with the assist for Pique’s winner. An excellent performance from a player who seems to still be more than comfortable playing at the highest level.
Spain: De Gea, Juanfran, Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta, Silva, Morata, Nolito
Czech Republic: Cech, Kaderabek, Sivok, Hubnik, Limbersky, Darida, Plasil, Gebre Selassie, Rosicky, Krejci, Necid