Toulouse (France) (AFP) – Spain coach Vicente del Bosque hailed his defending champions, including benched captain Iker Casillas, after a Euro 2016 masterclass that left the Czech Republic on the wrong end of a 1-0 Group D defeat Monday.
Spain, crowned European champions in 2008 and 2012, are looking to become the first team to win the competition three times in succession.
But on a rain-soaked pitch in windy Toulouse, ‘La Roja’ were frustrated until Gerard Pique headed Andres Iniesta’s prefect back-post delivery past Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech in the 87th minute.
Having lost the chance to defend their World Cup crown in 2014 when they exited the competition at the first hurdle, Del Bosque was more than happy with a result that he says sets them up well for further group games against Turkey and Croatia.
“Winning this game was important for us,” said Del Bosque. “We’ve got the three points, but we also had a grip for most of the game.
“We want to finish first in the group, if possible, and this has given us the spur we need and will give us a bit more optimism for the campaign.”
Having been booed by Spain fans earlier this season following anti-Real Madrid comments, Pique was the unlikely hero, although, it was his Barcelona teammate Iniesta’s superb delivery on top of an all-round, customary brilliant performance that won him the man-of-the-match award.
Del Bosque preferred to concentrate on his side’s display as a whole, adding: “Iniesta played well, but this is not the time to speak about individuals.”
But the wily Spaniard was quick to comment on Casillas, who in spite of helping Spain to their previous two titles and a World Cup trophy in 2010, spent the game on the substitutes bench.
Del Bosque instead gave the nod to Manchester United ‘keeper David De Gea, a gesture that was regarded as a show of support after reports last week linked the 25-year-old to a sex scandal.
Del Bosque refused to confirm whether De Gea would start against Turkey on June 17, perhaps leaving the door open for Casillas when he said: “Iker’s behaviour was exemplary, even from the bench he’s a valuable player for us.
“He was shouting his support the whole time.”
Yet, apart from a last-gasp strike by Vladimir Darida that De Gea did well to save, Spain’s backline came under little threat during an outrageously one-sided encounter.
Cech was kept on his toes throughout, producing a string of saves from Alvaro Morata, David Silva and Jordi Alba in the first half alone.
He hardly had time to warm up for the second half before Spain laid siege to his goal again, Cech blocking a drive from Sergio Ramos before seeing Alba miss an easy chance and then Silva fire just wide of the target.
Cech was finally left helpless when Iniesta floated in a cross for Pique, who headed home from just inside the six-yard box to send the Spanish fans wild.
Vrba commented: “All I can say is that Arsenal were very wise to sign him from Chelsea.”
But the coach, who led Viktoria Plzen into the group stages of the Champions League on two occasions, admitted Spain were simply too strong.
“We knew they were going to be very strong, that they were favourites and that for us it was a big test,” said Vrba.
“The Spanish know how to keep possession and to create chances but it’s a big disappointment for us to concede a goal like that.”
Vrba admitted his side had set out to “keep the Spanish out of our area”, and Iniesta admitted: “There is no single way of breaking down these teams.
“You have to be calm, have patience and just keep working at it.”
Spain will now look to seal their place in the last 16 with a win over Turkey, who lost 1-0 to Croatia on Sunday, before meeting Croatia on June 21.
Iniesta added: “We had a tough first game, now we’ll think about Turkey. A tournament lasts about six or seven games, and we’ll try to stay in it as long as possible.”
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