New-look Spain make Euro 2024 statement

Published June 22, 2024
BERLIN: Austria’s Christoph Baumgartner (second L) shoots to score against Poland during their Euro 2024 Group D match at Olympiastadion on Friday.—Reuters
BERLIN: Austria’s Christoph Baumgartner (second L) shoots to score against Poland during their Euro 2024 Group D match at Olympiastadion on Friday.—Reuters

GELSENKIRCHEN: Spain have produced footballing masterclasses to clear two big hurdles impressively at the start of their Euro 2024 campaign, sending a statement to their fellow title challengers.

After hammering Croatia 3-0, they subjected defending champions Italy to a 1-0 defeat on Thursday that would have been a thrashing were it not for goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma who made several stunning saves to save his team from humiliation.

The single-goal victory in Gelsenkirchen secured a last 16 berth for Spain, who won Group ‘B’ after enjoying themselves while toying with a team who had given the impression they were making progress under manager Luciano Spalletti after coming from behind to beat Albania 2-1 in their opening game of the tournament.

Superb performances against high-level opponents are reviving memories of the all-conquering Spain who dominated world football for several years, winning back to back European Championships in 2008 and 2012 and the 2010 World Cup.

But Luis de la Fuente’s Spain plays another game, far from the possession-based “tiki-taka” style which became a trademark of the Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and Andres Iniesta generation of over a decade ago.

De la Fuente was a hard-working full back for Athletic Bilbao in the 1980s and after beco­ming head coach of Spain’s academy system, he was given the chance to take charge of the senior squad with the unique advantage of knowing most of his players from a very young age.

A tough character with a strong work ethic balanced by a good understanding of his players, De la Fuente has shown tactical nous and excellent man-management skills in just over a year on the job.

The first step was seen when they won last year’s UEFA Nations League with a much-chan­ged squad from the one that disappointed under Luis Enrique at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Now, however, his team seem to have reached another level.

Their relentless high pressure combines with lightning-fast one-touch moves and precise passes that give the impression of a squad in which each player has an almost instinctive feel for the positioning of his teammates.

“I know footballers very well, that’s my best virtue. I know what they want, what they need to be happy and what I do is give it to them,” De la Fuente told a press conference.

Rampant Nico Williams led the charge for Spain who forced Donnarumma into eight saves and suffocated Italy.

Williams toyed with Italy right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo, flashing across the ball from which Riccardo Calafiori netted the decisive own goal and also smashing a late shot off the bar.

The performance of Williams and teen sensation Lamine Yamal highlighted a huge talent gap between the two sides as Italy’s midfielders failed to get any sort of control until the final minutes of the game.

But even then, with Williams and Yamal substituted, Spain still managed to waste two great late opportunities to give the match a scoreline which truly reflected a one-sided contest.

“The difference was too great. We were too stretched and they created loads of problems for us,” said Spalletti, who looked disconsolate when talking to media. “We couldn’t get behind them because we weren’t a team that managed to play with any sort of fluidity.”

However, although Italy look a long way off the tournament’s top performers Spain and Ge­r­many, Spalletti’s outfit only need a draw against Croatia on Monday to reach the knockout stages where traditionally they are experts at grinding out results even when not playing well.

“Our destiny is still in our own hands, we can’t look at this as a total disaster. We have a lot to do against Croatia, but I am convinced we can do it,” Donnarumma told RAI after the match.

Yaremchuk revives Ukraine’s hopes**

On Friday, Roman Yaremchuk emerged from the bench to score the winning goal as Ukraine produced a stirring fightback to beat Slovakia 2-1 and kickstart their campaign.

Slovakia knew victory in Duesseldorf would take them through to the knockout stage with a game to spare and they went ahead on 17 minutes thanks to Ivan Schranz, who netted the winner in the shock victory over Belgium in their opening game.

Ukraine came into this match reeling after losing 3-0 to Romania last time out but they dug deep here and Mykola Shaparenko equalised in the 54th minute with a close-range finish.

They then snatched a vital win as Yaremchuk controlled a lofted pass by Shaparenko to prod past Slovakia’s goalkeeper Martin Dubravka as Ukraine joined Slovakia and Romania on three points in a wide-open Group ‘E’.

Romania play Belgium, who are bottom without a point, on Saturday in Frankfurt before the final round of matches next Wednesday.

“The players showed the spirit of Ukraine on the pitch and deserved the win,” said coach Serhiy Rebrov, whose team are playing at their first major tournament since Russian forces invaded in 2022. “Today it was a very important win for Ukraine and for our country. I’m sure they were proud.”

Later, Austria renewed hopes of a top-two finish in Group ‘D’ with a 3-1 victory over Poland, who were left in last place with no points and only a slim chance of advancing.

In a furious start, the Austrians, now on three points from two matches applied early pressure and it paid off in the ninth minute with Gernot Trauner’s powerful header at the near post.

Poland, who have now lost both of their matches, levelled through Krzysztof Piatek’s second attempt in the box after his first effort was blocked on the half-hour mark.

Fit-again Poland striker Robert Lewandowski came on in the 60th minute but it was Austria who scored twice more, first with a flowing move and Christoph Baumgartner’s finish just inside the box in the 66th and a Marco Arnautovic penalty 12 minutes later.

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2024

Opinion

Editorial

Misplaced priorities
Updated 19 Jul, 2024

Misplaced priorities

The government must call its APC at the earliest and invite all stakeholders to take part; this matter cannot be delayed further.
Oman terror attack
19 Jul, 2024

Oman terror attack

THE normally peaceful sultanate of Oman was shaken by sectarian terrorism on Monday when militants belonging to the...
Urban flooding
19 Jul, 2024

Urban flooding

THE provincial authorities have been taking precautionary measures, or so we have been told, to cope with emergency...
A way forward
Updated 17 Jul, 2024

A way forward

Before political leaders inflict more damage, they must give talks a chance.
Export delusions
Updated 18 Jul, 2024

Export delusions

Plummeting exports as a ratio of GDP is one of the major reasons driving the current economic slowdown and the balance-of-payments crisis.
Diversity in UK politics
17 Jul, 2024

Diversity in UK politics

THE recent UK elections have ushered in the most diverse parliament in the nation’s history. Under the leadership...