Spain’s rearguard as impressive as their technical mastery: Euro 2016 talking points

Greg Lea offers his observations from Friday's action in Euro 2016, where the stars of Spain were just too good for Turkey and Croatia missed a trick against Czech Republic.

Spain players Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, Nolito, Jordi Alba and Alvaro Morata celebrate during their 3-0 win over Turkey at Nice late on Friday. Bertrand Langlois / AFP
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Spain 3-0 Turkey: Attacking sparkle, defensive solidity

This was the performance of the tournament so far, the holders blowing a disappointing Turkey outfit away with some stunning football.

Spain’s possession had a purpose, with Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas regularly playing penetrative passes as Nolito shifted defenders about with his non-stop movement and Alvaro Morata delivered a much-improved display following a below-par showing against Czech Republic last time out.

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The holders’ technical mastery always catches the eye, but equally impressive is their recent defensive record at the European Championship.

Spain have now gone 690 minutes without letting in a goal in this competition, with Italy’s Antonio Di Natale the last player to breach their backline in the opening game at Euro 2012.

Once Vicente del Bosque’s men get their noses in front, it is very difficult for opponents to find a way back into the match. Teams usually sit deep against the Spanish but are forced to move up the pitch as soon as they go behind, which in turn opens up the space that their numerous playmakers thrive on.

Spain’s solidity at the back could be just as significant as their flowing football further forward this summer.

Czech Republic 2-2 Croatia: Two-goal lead thrown away

If evidence is ever needed of a scoreline failing to accurately reflect the pattern of a game, this match should be put forward as exhibit A.

Croatia were utterly dominant for the vast majority of their Group D encounter with Czech Republic, goals from Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic giving them a two-goal lead that was the least their performance deserved.

Luka Modric pulled the strings from deep, Rakitic found space between the lines and played some penetrative passes in behind the Czech defence and Perisic did a good job at carrying the ball forward on the break.

With Milan Badelj anchoring the midfield in front of centre-backs Domagoj Vida and Vedran Corluka, Croatia barely conceded any chances and created plenty of their own.

Some blamed their subsequent collapse — Milan Skoda pulled one back in the 83rd minute before Tomas Necid equalised from the penalty spot — on the withdrawal of Modric, who departed the field just after the hour-mark.

The Real Madrid maestro does bring a sense of control to his country’s play, but Croatia still had multiple opportunities to put the game to bed once Modric had taken a seat on the substitutes’ bench, while it is also unlikely that he would have been able to help Croatia deal with the two long balls that ultimately rescued an unlikely point for Czech Republic.

The decision of a minority of Croatian fans to throw flares and fireworks onto the pitch cannot have helped the players’ concentration, but this result does not change the fact they were by far the better side.

Croatia manager: 'These people are sports terrorists'

Italy 1-0 Sweden: Drab affair ends with drama

After an impressive defeat of Belgium in their opening encounter, Italy were expected to strengthen their credentials further when they faced Sweden in Toulouse.

Antonio Conte’s side struggled, however, with their lack of midfield creativity clear for all to see. Whereas Belgium afforded the four-time world champions plenty of room on the counter-attack, Sweden shut off space more effectively and forced Italy to try to break them down.

It did not look like happening until Eder struck in the closing minutes, with Italy going through to the round of 16 as a result of the Brazil-born striker’s fine effort.

There is still work to be done if they are to progress to the latter stages, though.

The Euro 2016 late show

Two of Friday’s matches featured decisive late goals, which has been a trend of the competition up to now.

Of the 42 strikes the European Championship has seen thus far, 29 have come in the second half and 12 in the 87th minute or later.

It may just be a statistical quirk, but one of the reasons for the high amount of goals in the closing minutes could be the closeness of games in the group stage.

Of the 21 matches played so far, only one — Spain vs Turkey — has entered the final 10 minutes with more than one goal separating the two sides.

With the margins so tight, teams have inevitably opened up as they chase an equaliser or a winner with the final whistle drawing closer.

Sometimes — as in England vs Wales, France vs Albania and Spain vs Czech Republic — the pressure has paid off for the team that is pushing for a goal, while on other occasions — Germany vs Ukraine, Austria vs Hungary and Belgium vs Italy, for instance — the nation in the lead has gone further ahead on the counter-attack, taking advantage of the space vacated by opponents who have thrown men forward.

It is one possible explanation for the flood of goals we have seen in the final few minutes of games.

Player of the day

Andres Iniesta. The touch, the technique, the awareness, the intelligence, the decision-making, the positioning, the precision, the passing. What a footballer.

Goal of the day

For a long while, Italy’s clash with Sweden looked destined to finish 0-0 even if the two teams were allowed to play all night, but Eder decided he had had enough in the 88th minute. Collecting Simone Zaza’s excellent knock-down, the Inter striker drove past a couple of challenges and powered a well-struck shot into the corner of the net.

Decision of the day

Referee Mark Clattenburg did brilliantly to spot Domagoj Vida’s handball and award Czech Republic a penalty just before the start of second-half stoppage time against Croatia.

Howler of the day

Croatia fans may have plenty of grievances with their country’s Football Association, but throwing flares onto the pitch — one of which almost exploded in the faces of a photographer and Ivan Perisic — was a despicable way to protest. Serious questions must be asked of the security outside the stadium given the amount of dangerous objects that were snuck inside.

Statistic of the day

Sweden have still not had a single shot on target at Euro 2016.

Thing to look forward to

Saturday is the last time in seven days that we will be treated to three games taking place one after the other. Make the most of it.

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