Gerard Piqué once joked that the solution to those games when there was no way through, when teams defended deep against Spain or Barcelona, frustrating them, when the clock kept running and the chances kept coming but the ball just wouldn’t go in, was simple: stick him up front sooner.
Spain had tried it all here, opportunities and players arriving one after the other after the other, but still Petr Cech would not be beaten. Until the 87th minute when, at last, it happened; when, at last, there he was.
Andrés Iniesta’s cross curled to the far post and Piqué leaped to head in the goal that allowed Spain to win their opening game for the first time since Euro 2008. Piqué, the footballer who has publicly backed the Catalans’ right to have a referendum on independence, joining demonstrations in Barcelona; the player who has never once said he would vote out but has been widely, fiercely criticised for it anyway; the man who admits he can’t help but wind up Real Madrid and was whistled by some of Spain’s fans after a joke he cracked about a Portuguese player and a Colombian singer; the man who still is whistled by some of them; the player they whistled during their final warm-up game a week ago.
They weren’t whistling him now. Piqué, husband of Shakira, voted the most handsome man at Euro 2016, who appeared here clean-shaven for the first time in months, the beard gone, and who ultimately proved their best attacker, the emergency striker who came to their rescue. As the ball hit the net they flew into the air to celebrate. So did he. The man whose commitment to Spain was questioned after 76 caps, two European Championships and a World Cup, who this week had called playing for Spain a privilege, had got the goal.
There were only minutes left when he scored; well over an hour later Piqué was still out there playing football on the pitch with his son Milan, both of them in full Spain kit. It was quiet in the stadium now and he still had been called to provide a sample for the drugs tests. His wonderful opening day was ending late. As he played, and waited, his team-mates spoke of his significance.
“He’s a spectacular player who has given a lot of happiness to the national team, so I don’t understand all the rest [the whistles],” Aritz Aduriz said.
Iniesta added: “I have never agreed with [people whistling him]. His commitment and responsibility is above anything else. The fans were spectacular today with him, with the team. Aside of what goes on outside, I am happy for him because he scored an important goal.”
The format of this tournament means an opening-game draw would not have been a disaster and Vicente del Bosque had pointed out they lost the first game in South Africa and drew the opener in Poland and Ukraine, tournaments they went on to win; but it would not have been the start they sought. Familiar doubts would have returned, too; they still may, in fact.
This was an often impressive performance from Spain in which opportunities were made and there was creativity, especially from Iniesta, who was superb throughout. They controlled the ball, completing more than three times as many passes as their opponents; but if possession is nine‑tenths of the law, that other tenth is what decides the outcome. Spain know that but this remains their best approach, the most pragmatic one, the one that suits their players. They are sure of that. But they also know that, like any style, there are problems associated with it and with opponents’ responsesto it.
To a point those problems can almost be measured by the length of the list. The list of strikers, that is. It often seems Spain have tried every combination up front; they have tried every No9 and they have tried no No9. They have tried Roberto Soldado, Álvaro Negredo, Fernando Llorente, Michu, Paco Alcácer and Diego Costa; they have tried Cesc Fàbregas and David Silva; here, they tried Álvaro Morata and Aritz Aduriz. All have found it difficult; goals have not been easy to come by. Even when they dominate it has not been easy to find a way to goal. Especially when they dominate, perhaps.
There is something in Spain’s style that complicates life for the striker. Chances are usually few and when they come they have to be taken. Here they were not and while there will be hope for the next few games after this performance, while Cech stopped them and players came close, there will be a familiar concern. Morata had the best of the opportunities from close range early on; Aduriz struck an overhead kick just wide. Jordi Alba burst past the goalkeeper, only for the ball to run away from him. David Silva was stopped, Juanfran too.
A total of 17 shots yielded only five on target and it just wasn’t happening; the goal resisted. Still Spain sought, still they pushed, still they played; not very much more could be asked of them, in truth, even if very few of Cech’s saves were truly outstanding. Just a little more luck, just a little more accuracy, just the goal.
Time was running out and still it was 0-0. They had tried everything. Well, almost everything. It was time to try Piqué up front.
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