Spain aim to roll into Euro 2016 knockout phase


Paris (AFP) – Andres Iniesta’s Spain will look to ease into the knockout stages of Euro 2016 and keep up their pursuit of a third consecutive title on Friday when they face out-of-sorts Turkey.

And losing 2012 finalists Italy, who impressed in their opening match, can also move into the last 16 if they overcome Sweden and their superstar captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Toulouse.

Croatia and Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric could also get through from Spain’s Group D with a win against Czech Republic in Saint Etienne.

Spain avoided their normal early tournament hiccups as Barcelona defender Gerard Pique headed home the winner three minutes from time for a deserved three points against the dogged Czechs in their first game.

Coach Vicente del Bosque’s men are unbeaten in 13 European Championship games, but the team is still haunted by their early blowout at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil when they were the holders.

“Starting with a win makes a big difference,” Atletico Madrid defender Juanfran told reporters ahead of the game in Nice.

“It changes the mood, in the hotel, with the manager, everything feels better,” he said.

“We get more confidence about ourselves, after what happened in Brazil, if you lose the first game your confidence drops.” 

Del Bosque is expected to name the same side that started against the Czechs despite doubts over his striking options.

Juventus’ Alvaro Morata spurned a number of opportunities before he was replaced by 35-year-old Aritz Aduriz.

Turkey are under intense pressure after an under-par showing in the 1-0 loss to Croatia on Sunday.

Young midfielder Ozan Tufan was roundly mocked in Turkey after pictures showed him adjusting his hair at the very moment Modric scored a stunning match-winning volley.

– Zlatan v Buffon –

Italy showed they have replaced big star power with a well-oiled team unit as they produced arguably the best performance of the first round of fixtures to shut down highly-fancied Belgium 2-0, with goals from Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle.

Next up for the Azzurri is Ibrahimovic, who terrorised defences in Italy for seven seasons and is now keeping Manchester United fans on tenterhooks to see if he will be joining Jose Mourinho’s side after four highly successful seasons with Paris Saint-Germain.

“Zlatan is so strong that he can play in any league in the world… he is capable of destabilising a whole team,” said Italy boss Antonio Conte, who will be in England next season at the helm of Chelsea.

Ibrahimovic, 34, could become the first man to score in four separate European Championships.

He scored a spectacular backheeled goal against Italy when the two sides met in the group stages of Euro 2004, beating ‘keeper Gianluigi Buffon who at the age of 38 will stand in his way again.

“In the past 12 years he’s shown on more than one occasion how talented he is and he’s managed to repeat that backheel goal three or four times since. It’s become his speciality,” Buffon said.

Sweden need the points after a poor display in a 1-1 draw against the Republic of Ireland on Monday.

Croatia will be guaranteed their place in the knockout stages with victory over the Czech Republic.

Real Madrid’s Modric shone in the win over Turkey and Czech coach Pavel Vrba believes a team also boasting Modric’s Real teammate Mateo Kovacic and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic can be considered a “little Spain”.

Host nation France were trying to prevent accusations that star midfielder Paul Pogba had made an offensive gesture during a match from spoiling the atmosphere in their camp.

Pogba had been criticised for his performance in France’s opening win over Romania but he came on as a substitute against Albania and provided the assist for Dimitri Payet’s stoppage-time goal that sealed a 2-0 win.

Pictures of him celebrating showed his arm waving, apparently directed at the press tribune.

“I want to say very sincerely, and very strongly, that whatever interpretation one can make about the images, I never had the intention to ‘demonstrate’ or to attack anyone or to take revenge,” Pogba said in a statement to AFP.

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