Relief and release for Spain, vindication and – at last – a victory for Luis Enrique. On the eve of this 5-0 win over Slovakia, the Spanish manager made a statement that was a lot more assertive than anything his team had done up to this game.
“I have the feeling that this is like a bottle of cava that is about to be uncorked,” Enrique said. “As soon as we do take that cork out, as soon as we produce a complete performance and get the kind of win that gives us confidence, our best version will come out.”
So much of that proved prophetic. Spain flowed, produced a convincing performance – if not yet a complete one – and looked confident again.
It did look a turning point, even if a late twist in Sweden’s 3-2 win over Poland meant that they were denied first place in the group. That doesn’t look like it matters too much, given it would have been Croatia rather than the Czech Republic – with both of those teams having drawn 1-1 in the group stage – but both paths involve a prospective meeting with one of France, Germany or Portugal in the quarter-finals.
Spain will now feel like they have a better chance against any of them, as they finally took some chances. There was always a sense something was there even in those purgatorial first two games. The chances were created in those matches, too. Enrique may be prophetic there, too. We might well see the best version of Spain.
Whether that best version is good enough to win it outright is another issue. They still look like they lack something. They may well point to the very last Euros, when Portugal went all the way after a poor start – and that with Eder finishing the tournament up front.
They did benefit here from the worst version of Slovakia, and poor Martin Dubravka. That was when the cava was opened. While Spain averted disaster, Slovakia became a calamity. It was as if they just lost their will as well as their way, as they gave up the chance to go through in third with every goal they gave up. It is remarkable they finished ahead of Poland after a performance this bad. They won’t be troubling the last-16, but Spain will. That’s when the tournament really starts, and that may well be when Spain start now they’ve learned to finish again.
It will be all the more satisfying for Enrique because there was a significant period when it looked like this was going to be another parody of a performance, and that was even after the first goal.
Alvaro Morata has gone way beyond parody, mind. We had gotten to the point where it was impossible not to just have sympathy for him. The Seville crowd did make a point of supportively applauding him when he was taken off, but it summed up Morata’s look that his replacement Ferran Torres immediately scored from the position in which he would have been. Before that, the striker was almost apologetic when he stepped up for that penalty after the VAR call from Jakub Hromada’s charge on Koke. His eventual effort was probably reflective of his entire game: cleanly struck, but not clinical enough. Dubravka dived well, and saved strongly, but the shot favoured any correct goalkeeper call.
Morata did show his usual admirable persistence in play, but Enrique didn’t persist with him. On 66 minutes, with Spain comfortable, he took Morata off for Torres. It seemed a surprise because there were goals there for his team – and the striker. So it proved. Immediately. Within 60 seconds, Torres was given that literal tap-in to make it 4-0. That’s how easy the game had become. Spain were able to pass their way to within centimetres of Slovakia’s goal.
They still required the fortune that had deserted them right up to Morata’s miss to release them. Dubravka handed it to them. On the half-hour, he inexplicably slapped a dropping ball into his own net. It’s possible he was disoriented by the glare of the strong Seville sun. Either way, it meant Spain finally saw light.
The cork was out. The goals started to flow.
Morata might even have started to feel sympathy for Dubravka. The goalkeeper just looked disoriented again before half-time, allowing Gerard Moreno to cross for Aymeric Laporte to head into the corner.
Slovakia started to collapse. Spain were no longer facing one of those congested defences. There were gaps everywhere. Jordi Alba put another ball through one for Pablo Sarabia to finish, before Sarabia did the same for Torres for that goal that might have been Morata’s.
Spain were just happy to take them as they came. Slovakia were offering them up, as Juraj Kucka knocked the ball into his own goal.
That was when news started to come through from St Petersburg that Poland were coming back from 2-0. Robert Lewandowski, the striker whose goal had caused such uncertainty for Spain in the previous game, was now giving them clarity. He was giving them first place.
They couldn’t ultimately take first place. That doesn’t look like it matters too much. Spain were too concerned with their own performance, and will feel they can take on anyone again. Maybe even better sides will suit them, as they open out. That has been another argument made by Enrique.
He has already got one big call right.