It took Spain 87 agonising minutes and 18 shots to break the deadlock against the Czech Republic on Monday. They were good, but frustrating in equal measure. There were shades of old Spain, with swift passing and movement, but without the cutting edge. In the end, they were rescued by a masterclass from Andres Iniesta. A goal from Gerard Pique injected some much-needed confidence into Spain, notoriously slow starters at big tournaments, but their poor finishing was again the main talking point of Monday night’s football.
On Friday night, however, it took La Roja just 34 minutes to put the ball in the back of the net; in the blink of an eye, three minutes later, they doubled their lead. Eleven minutes later, they had put the game to bed with a third. The two men who were criticised the most for their performance against the Czech Republic — Alvaro Morata and Nolito — were the same two who destroyed Turkey on Friday.
Vicenete del Bosque’s mind-boggling squad selection for the Euro 2016 tournament — leaving out proven goalscorers like Diego Costa, Fernando Torres and Valencia forward Paco Alcacer, the top scorer in the qualifying campaign — had raised eyebrows. But he had immense confidence in Morata despite an average season with Juventus, so much so that he was one of only two strikers in the squad.
“Morata has very good qualities: Physical strength, intelligent movement, intuition in the box, two good feet, good with the ball, and also in the air. He has everything to be a great striker,” del Bosque had said about the striker before the tournament.
However, none of those qualities were on display against the Czech. Morata hardly looked an aerial threat, his positioning sense was way off the mark, he fell back too often to start off, and, in trying to compensate, kept getting caught offside. He wasn’t clinical with his finishing either, missing two clear cut chances in the opening half-an-hour. He failed to create a single chance and was withdrawn just after the hour mark, with Aritz Aduriz — the only other striker in the squad — replacing him.
Another player who had a completely off-day was Nolito. The Celta Vigo forward — chosen over Chelsea’s Pedro Rodriguez in the starting XI — is a potent threat cutting inside from the left flank and his excellent dribbling abilities make him even more dangerous. But against Czech, he too seemed to have lost that positional sense. Instead of cutting inside, he got dragged to the left too often, and with Alba already making overlapping runs, he often lost his way. Subsequently, he too was substituted in the 82nd minute after a disappointing showing.
There were murmurs suggesting del Bosque might leave Nolito on the bench for the Turkey match while the pressure on Morata had also increased. But the manager kept faith in his chosen forwards. Not only did he stick with the two, he also addressed their positional problems and corrected them. The results were seen instantly. Morata was found more in the final third and inside the Turkish box, making clever runs; Nolito cut in from the left flank to occupy the central area and the impact was clearly visible. Spain got a chance in as the ninth minute when Jordi Alba sent in a low cross, but centerback Mehmet Topal made a last-ditch intervention to deny Morata, who had made an astute run inside the box.
Just like on Monday, Spain again started slowly, but soon started controlling the midfield. Turkey started positively, but soon went on the defensive. Before the start of the game, the Turkish coach Fatih Terim had said that his team won’t necessarily rely on defending, but admitted that they may not have much of a choice. “Spain force you to play back, it’s one of their strengths,” he said. “They’re one of the best teams in the world. We will have to do the best we can to play our own game,” Terim said.
Given the way the Czech match played out, it was a risk. By going on the defensive, Turkey took that risk and paid for it in the 34th minute. Nolito whipped in a delightful cross from the left and Morata, unmarked inside the box, rose above Topal to guide the header into the net. The Turkish defenders had left too much space and Morata showed great technique to beat the keeper.
Three minutes later, the duo was in the thick of things yet again; this time Morata held up the ball well on the left and laid it off to Cesc Fabregas, who lofted an intriguing ball goalwards. Topal again misjudged it, this time horribly so; his backward header looped inside the box. Nolito, with a typical poacher’s instinct, made an instinctive run from left and bundled it low past Babacan with sound technique.
Nolito had created a telling impact in the first half with three shots, four crosses, two chances created, 86 per cent pass accuracy, one goal and one assist. And he wasn’t done yet. Spain came out rampaging in the second half, and in a brilliant 22-pass goal, it was Nolito’s run in front of Andres Iniesta, outside the box, that disguised the defenders and opened up space for Alba down the left. Iniesta threaded in an excellent through ball to the left-back, who unselfishly squared it up for Morata to slot home his second.
Morata could have had his hat-trick just seconds later, but his glancing header off a delicious Iniesta cross just missed the far post. With the match effectively over, it was a stroll in the park for the Spanish midfield, who were playing training ground football. The Spanish defence was hardly tested, David de Gea wasn’t called into action even once. Turkey came close on a couple of occasions, but Spain dealt with the attacks diligently.
It was a clinical performance, one that was set up by Morata and Nolito, two players who redeemed themselves on the night as Spain cruised into the last 16. The midfield bossed yet again, with Iniesta being the pivot. But it was the performance of the forwards that del Bosque would be most relieved about.
Morata’s work-rate and Nolito’s positional sense stood out. The former showcased all the attributes that makes the manager trust him, while Nolito showed that he is a versatile forward with the ability to score — something that has helped him earn the moniker of Celta Vigo’s Lionel Messi. He has now scored five goals in five matches for Spain. Against Czech, the Spanish forwards were caught offside on seven occasions, Morata and Nolito the worst offenders with three each. Against Turkey, they had zero offsides, which says a lot about how much they have improved.
It was a comprehensive victory, but the job isn’t done yet. Spain need to make sure they top the group in order to have a smooth path ahead and they face a tough Croatia side next. “We scored goals, which was something we hadn’t been doing recently, so it was perfect. But we haven’t won anything yet,” said a relieved but cautious del Bosque after the match.
Three goals, 726 passes, 18 shots, 59 per cent possession, 90 per cent pass accuracy — this was the Spain of old. The fluid Spain that controlled the midfield; the dominant Spain that conducted every action; the creative Spain that brought immense joy; the deadly Spain that split open defences. With a rock solid defence, thundering midfield, and Morata and Nolito providing the cutting edge — the fluid, dominant, creative and deadly Spain has risen again and this rings warning bells for the rest of the teams.