Better late than never.
For so long this looked like being another frustrating opening group game for a Spain team whose patience was stretched to the limit, yet with only three minutes remaining the best player on the pitch carved out the chance that implored Gerard Piqué to head home. Andrés Iniesta’s inch-perfect cross was duly converted and Spain, the defending champions, are up and running.
Several Czech Republic players collapsed to the floor at the final whistle, the late concession too much to bear on an afternoon when Pavel Vrba’s side defended bravely and came close to nicking a goal at the other end, notably when Cesc Fàbregas brilliantly cleared off the line midway through the second half.
Spain, however, dominated possession and the only question – and it feels like a familiar one – was whether Vicente del Bosque’s team could somehow find a way to make those passes count and actually score. Piqué, with his fifth goal for his country, came up with the answer and the relief among Del Bosque and his players was tangible.
In some ways this felt like a restorative victory for Spain, which feels like a strange thing to say about a team that is trying to win this tournament for the third successive time. Yet the memories of their implosion at the World Cup finals in Brazil still linger, with this game taking place exactly two years to the day since they were hammered 5-1 by Holland in Salvador.
Set up to sit deep and with 10 men behind the ball, the Czech Republic were never going to inflict that sort of damage but Pavel Vrba’s side succeeded in making life difficult for Spain. They also had chances before and after Piqué’s goal, with David de Gea repelling a late shot from Vladimir Darida after earlier producing a fine save low to his left to keep out Roman Hubnik’s volley.
In that sense De Gea vindicated Del Bosque’s decision to pick him ahead of Iker Casillas, in what felt like a big call not so much because of the Manchester United goalkeeper’s ability but more in terms of his state of mind after he was named in connection with a sexual assault case on the eve of this tournament. De Gea will have much more testing matches at these finals but, on the evidence of his performance against the Czech Republic, there is nothing wrong with his concentration levels.
Petr Cech, his opposite number, was much busier and in more ways than one. As well as the many saves that denied Álvaro Morata, Jordi Alba and David Silva, the Arsenal goalkeeper made more passes – 36 to be exact – than any other Czech Republic player.
It is a statistic that lays bare how little of the ball the Czech Republic saw on a day when Iniesta ran the game. Aged 32, the Barcelona midfielder remains a beautiful player to watch. Never flustered in possession and forever finding pockets of space to deliver those lovely, incisive passes, Iniesta is still the heartbeat of this team. Whether Spain have the players in front of him to make the most of his artistry is another matter.
“It’s not the first time that we’ve had this kind of game, this kind of opponent, and that means they have a lot of respect for how we play the game,” Iniesta said.
“There’s not a single way of breaking down these teams, you have to be calm and keep going forward until you have achieved what you want. They had chances as well to draw or to go ahead, but this is our style and the way we play, so the goal came the way it did – it’s a question of patience.”
Del Bosque had played all his cards by that point. Thiago, Pedro and 35-year-old Artiz Aduriz were introduced in the second half as Del Bosque tried to give Spain more of an attacking threat. Morata, Aduriz’s replacement, did have a couple of chances in the first half, when Cech saved from point-blank range and turned another shot around the post, but the Juventus forward never really looked convincing in the No9 role.
The Czech Republic, for whom Tomas Rosicky started despite playing only 19 minutes of club football for Arsenal last season, had their best spell around the hour mark. De Gea kept out Hubnik’s volley from Ladislav Krejci’s inswinging free-kick, and then came the moment when Fàbregas, with the Spain keeper stranded and Pavel Kaderabek waiting behind him to turn in Theodor Gebre Selassie’s far post header, superbly hooked clear.
Back came Spain as Silva, stepping inside onto his favoured left-foot, flashed an 18-yard shot narrowly wide. With the clock running down, they badly needed some inspiration and Iniesta, as ever, provided it. Linking with Thiago on the left, the Barcelona player curled a perfectly flighted centre that Piqué nodded in to give Del Bosque his first opening group game victory at the fourth attempt. “We created a lot of chances – we hope finishing will not be a problem,” the Spain manager said.
“But we had the game completely under control and that’s the most important thing.”
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