Spain face last chance to capitalise on advantages and salvage Euro 2020 campaign

Luis Enrique's side have dealt with plenty of challenges but have still dominated the stats - all but the one that matters

With the knockout rounds beckoning, Spain have emerged at the top of the class at Euro 2020 in all sorts of areas.

Their share of possession is way out in front of the rest. They cross the ball more, on average, than any other team in the championship. And they could be packing up all their handsome statistics and heading out of the tournament by the end of Wednesday night.

The 2008 and 2012 European champions take on Slovakia – who are on three points and second in Group E – in Seville still stuck in third gear and with some symptoms of a bad temper. There have been boos from the crowd and indignation from the players about that animosity.

Far from gaining an advantage from playing every one of their group matches at home, Spain give the impression they might be happier elsewhere: there have been complaints about the state of the pitch at the Cartuja stadium, and mutterings about the extra demands made by the heat of Andalucia in June.

Luis Enrique, the head coach, had wanted to go into the last pool match “with six points and no goals conceded,” he admitted. “But now we face a decisive moment.”

The key stats so far: one goal scored, scant reward for all that possession and all those crosses; one conceded, to Poland’s Robert Lewandowski. Spain have drawn both their games – 0-0 against a crabby Sweden on the opening matchday – which means the only guarantee of progress is victory on Wednesday.

They should welcome back captain Sergio Busquets, whose positive coronavirus test a week before the tournament threw Spain's plans into some disarray. Not only did a relatively inexperienced squad miss their most worldly player while he was isolating, but because of the protocols following a positive test in the camp, opportunities for full collective training sessions were reduced.

Spain are not the only squad to have this sort of setback, but they were not best equipped to cope with it. Luis Enrique had selected a 24-man party – he chose not to pick the allowed 26 – in which several new partnerships needed developing, almost from scratch.

Manchester City's Aymeric Laporte, for instance, only began his Spain career – he switched allegiance from his native France in May – just before Euro 2020, and slotted into a centre-back pairing with Pau Torres that went into the tournament with just 63 minutes' worth of friendly-match rehearsal. Their partnership already had some awkwardness to overcome, given they are both left-footed.

When Lewandowski, with the help of a firm shove, beat Laporte to head in Poland's equaliser on Saturday, several thousand Spaniards immediately thought of Sergio Ramos. The former Spain captain and central defender, owner of 180 international caps, and by his own account fully recovered from the injuries that disrupted the end of his club season, was controversially left out of Luis Enrique's squad.

The manager’s vision of a Spain which has an eye on the long-term future is radical. It has had Marcos Llorente, the Atletico Madrid midfielder, at right-back. It has Barcelona’s Pedri, only 18, entrusted with creative responsibility in midfield.

There is no shortage of opportunity to get Pedri on the ball, given Spain’s skill at circulating it, but their difficulties in converting their keep-ball into goals is already ominously reminiscent of underachieving Spanish teams in the past.

Spain exited the last World Cup at the last-16 stage after taking an almost 80 per cent share of possession over 120 sterile minutes against Russia. They drew 1-1 and lost the penalty shoot-out.

Against Poland, Gerard Moreno struck the post with a penalty and, first to the rebound, Alvaro Morata put his effort wide, the sort of miss that has made Morata the target of the fiercest boos from the crowd. The Juventus striker did score the goal against the Poles, but fluffed enough chances against Sweden that he remains under scrutiny.

“Morata has done a lot of things very well,” said Luis Enrique, who will make some changes to his XI. There’s a probable return for Busquets, perhaps Cesar Azpilicueta in at right-back instead of Llorente, and perhaps a first Euro 2020 start for Liverpool’s Thiago Alcantara in midfield.

"It's a crossroads for us against Slovakia, and effectively it's a knockout game," said Azpilicueta, who led Chelsea to victory in the ultimate club knockout competition, the Champions League, last month. "Of course we know there are things we should be doing better, but it's important to also remember what we're doing well. "

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