Pique gets Spain out of a tight corner
Spain dominate opening match against Czech Republic but unable to break deadlock until 87th minute
Gerard Pique celebrates after scoring their winning goal. Photo: Sergio Perez/Reuters
Aritz Aduriz of Spain with an overhead kick during. Photo: EPA
There was not a flicker of emotion on the face of Vicente del Bosque’s face but elation was all around him. 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 the best player on the pitch carved out the chance that implored Gerard Pique to head home. Andres Iniesta’s cross was duly converted and Spain are up and running.
Several Czech Republic players collapsed to the floor at the final whistle, the late concession 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 the game and the only question was whether 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 felt 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 Holland in Salvador.
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.
The first half set the tone for a game that followed a predictable pattern. Spain passed the ball to death and the Czech Republic retreated in numbers, content to soak up pressure and occasionally - and it was only occasionally - try and break on the counter-attack. David de Gea, preferred to Iker Casillas in goal despite the spotlight being on him after he was named in connection to a sexual assault case on Friday, did not have a save to make until the 45th minute in what was effectively a training exercise of attack against defence.
Spain, by the end of the first half, were growing a little exasperated and the sight of Sergio Ramos shooting from 35 yards, 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, if ever there was one, that all is 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 Republic 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 No9 position for Spain, had a couple of opportunities. The first arrived after Juanfran, picked out by Ramos’s raking diagonal ball, fed David Silva on the Spain right. With the Czech defen stretched by a longer pass, Silva escaped and delivered a low cross that Morata, from six yards out, stabbed into the arms of Cech.
The Arsenal goalkeeper was kept busy without being overstretched; he was making saves but the sort he would expect to keep out. Morata’s angled left-footed shot, following a clever pass from Iniesta after Spain had pinched possession high up the pitch, was turned around the post by Cech. Silva, set free by the marauding Juanfran, was also denied when Cech quickly dashed from his line to smother at his feet, and Alba, on the opposite flank, saw his left-footed drive repelled.
It was pretty much one-way traffic until that chance on the stroke of half-time for Thomas Necid, whose shot was held at the second attempt by De Gea. Back came Spain for more of the same at the start of the second half. Morata, running onto Iniesta’s lovely through ball, crossed and only the upright spared Roman Hubnik from turning the ball into his own net. From the corner that followed Nolito and Ramos had shots blocked as the Czech Republic’s defending became desperate.
Yet Spain also had a couple of moments where they were living dangerously. Hubnik, stretching every sinew to make contact with Ladislav Krejci’s inswinging free-kick, forced De Gea into a save low to his left. Then came that moment when 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 that stage Del Bosque had replaced Morata with Aritz Aduriz and Spain’s search for a breakthrough had become more pressing. Finally it arrived when Thiago, another substitute, found Iniesta, whose perfectly flighted cross was met by the head of Pique. Guardian Service
Spain: De Gea, Juanfran, Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Fabregas (Thiago 70), Busquets, Iniesta, Silva, Morata (Aduriz 62), Nolito (Pedro 82).
Czech Republic: Cech, Kaderabek, Sivok, Hubnik, Limbersky, Darida, Plasil, Gebre Selassie (Sural 86), Rosicky (Pavelka 88), Krejci, Necid (Lafata 75).
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (Poland).