England 1-2 Spain 08/09/2018 Wembley Stadium, London
Spain kicked off their UEFA Nations League campaign with a good win against England at Wembley. Despite conceding an early goal La Roja hit back immediately through Saúl who guided Rodrigo Moreno’s cut-back into the bottom corner. Both country’s goals came from the same flank which had been seemingly vacated, allowing Luke Shaw and Dani Carvajal to attack each other. Both full backs created their team’s goals but will have been disappointed by the lack of cover provided by their midfield.
Goalscorer Saúl dominated the proceedings and showed his versatility by getting in front of Harry Kane to defend well in his own penalty area. His goal capped a man of the match performance but his all-round dynamism and combination of physicality and technique will have impressed new manager Luis Enrique. Spain’s domination of the centre of the pitch will have appeased some of the doubters who blamed the lack of success in the World Cup on a betrayal of tiki-taka values but the team still struggled to create many clear cut chances and in fact scored from their only two shots on target.
The winner came through Rodrigo as he got in front of his marker at the front post and turned in a delightful low-whipped free kick from Thiago. The Valencia forward seems to have cemented his place in the team following Diego Costa’s indifferent form in Russia and Iago Aspas’ frustrated performance against England and should enjoy a run of games as part of the Spanish forward line. Another impressive performance was that of David de Gea who was calm under pressure and made a miraculous save to deny Marcus Rashford, whose header seemed to be destined for the top corner. The keeper then followed this up by another smart save to thwart the English forward in the second half.
Spain came under sustained pressure late in the second half with England’s strikers having a few opportunities but Spain’s offside trap denied them time and again. England looked to have equalised deep into injury time after Danny Welbeck reacted to de Gea spilling the ball after a skewed clearance from Sergio Ramos but the goal was disallowed after the England man was adjudged to have fouled the goalkeeper.
All in all a good win and a good start to Spain’s first Nation’s League but the lack of cutting edge from Aspas and Isco was disappointing.
Spain 6-0 Croatia 11/09/2018 Estadio Martínez Valero, Elche
From a lack of cutting edge to an abundance of it in Spain’s second Nation’s League game against World Cup finalists Croatia. Despite delivering Croatia’s worst ever international defeat it was the away team who started the match with the upper hand with both teams starting the game at a high pace and seemingly attempting to play more directly than we have seen previously. Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitić curled just wide from outside the box and Dani Carvajal did well to defend as Ivan Perišić bore down on goal. This seemed to be the wake up call that Spain needed and Dani Carvajal, who seemingly had the whole of the right flank to himself started terrorising the Croatian defence.
Spain’s first came as Carvajal neatly controlled a long diagonal ball before picking out Saúl to scored his second goal in two games with an incredible outside of the boot cross. Both the cross and the header were inch perfect and kicked off what would be a rout for Spain. Croatia could not cope with Spain’s fluid forward line which saw Rodrigo, Isco and Asensio floating between the lines to find space, the latter of this trio doubled La Roja’s lead after picking up the ball outside of the area and driving a left footed shot past a helpless goalkeeper. We’ve come to expect such goals from the young Mallorcan forward but it could become a key asset to a Spanish team that has found it difficult to break teams down in the past.
The third goal was again all Asensio as he unleashed a fearsome curling effort after cutting in from the right flank. It will go down as an own goal from Lovre Kalinić as the ball bounced off the back of the goalkeeper’s head but it was made through Asensio’s speed and precision and he was unlucky to hit the crossbar. At 3-0 the visiting team seemed to give up the ghost and rarely threatened de Gea but this may also be, in part, down to Sergio Busquets who enjoyed a far more dynamic role than in the match against England. At times man-marking Croatian captain Luka Modrić and others filling in as part of a back three when in possession of the ball. Busquets will have shown Luis Enrique that he can be relied upon to perform as the new man in charge looks to the future.
The second half followed a similar pattern to the first with Marco Asensio running the game and proving a hattrick of assists. The first was a through ball to Rodrigo Moreno who slid the ball through Kalinić’s legs, truly making it a night to forget for Croatia’s goalkeeper. The second (and Spain’s fifth) was a pinpoint corner powered in by Sergio Ramos. And the third a cutely disguised pass to find Isco free in the area. The Real Madrid man made sure to make an impression on Enrique after being upstaged by his young teammate and wrapped his foot around the ball, simultaneously chipping and powering it spectacularly into the top corner.
A brilliant performance from Spain, and Asensio in particular, puts La Selección on course to play in the finals in June; however, the Croatia team that turned up in Elche was a pale shadow of the one that impressed so much in the World Cup finals. Luis Enrique will be happy to have picked up two wins from his first two matches in charge but he will also know that Spain’s struggles seem to manifest themselves in big tournaments rather than in friendlies and qualification matches.