Spain, whose build-up to Euro 2020 has been something of a nightmare, are already feeling the pressure after being held to a goalless draw by Sweden in their opening group in Group E, intensifying fears that they may not have the cutting edge to win the trophy for the fourth time.
The Spaniards, as everyone in football has become used to, dominated the fixture in terms of possession but, even with the benefit of home support, failed to be ruthless enough in front of goal to upset a hard-working Swedish defence.
A back four led by Manchester United’s Victor Lindelof dug in to earn what seemed an unlikely point following a first half in which their opponents made 419 passes and earned more than 80 per cent possession.
Those stats counted for nothing, however, as Sweden defended with real focus, not least from Marcus Danielson, a 32-year-old centre-back who plays his club football in China with Dalian Professional, and who seemed unbeatable on the night.
Sweden goalkeeper Robin Olsen made a series of excellent saves, and deserved his moment celebrating with Swedish fans at the final whistle; but the fear for Spain is that the real reason they failed to win was poor finishing and lack of an attacking threat, even from an outstanding squad.
This is the first time since 1980, against Italy, that Spain have drawn a group tournament game 0-0 and there may be more reasons behind it that were obvious on the field.
To say Spain’s build-up to Euro 2020 under coach Luis Enrique has been disrupted is a serious understatement. It has been a mess.
There was a positive Covid test for captain Sergio Busquets after one of his family caught the virus for instance, then another positive test for Diego Llorente, which caused panic only for it to later be proved false.
As a result of that misfortune, Spain had to prepare two squads in separate camps, field a team of Under 21 players for a pre-tournament friendly against Lithuania and deal with a row with the Spanish government over whether they could receive vaccinations ahead of the Euros.
Not exactly the perfect preparation for a tournament they believe is there to win.
The politics around the squad announcement has been equally frustrating, and perhaps more self-inflicted.
Luis Enrique bravely, or foolishly, insisted on selecting only 24 players in what for everyone else is a 26-man squad – and omitted legendary captain Sergio Ramos even though he was available for selection.
The absence of Ramos meant Spain went into this tournament without a single player from Real Madrid; a political powder keg which is certain to blow up at some stage.
All in all, it meant there was an enormous amount of pressure on Spain in this opening game in Seville, with Enrique knowing one bad day could lead to a mountain of negative headlines in the Spanish media, much of which has strong links to Real and Madrid.
There may be some uncomfortable reading for the former Barcelona man this morning, but he knows better than most how it works.
The disruption is a painful reminder of the way Spain headed into the 2018 World Cup in Russia in disarray, with coach Julen Lopetegui axed just two days before the tournament began after news emerged that he had agreed to become Real manager, behind his employer’s back.
It was Enrique who was entrusted with rebuilding team cohesion after that debacle, but he couldn’t prevent Spain losing a shock penalty shoot-out to hosts Russia in the last 16.
He may well feel that jinx is hanging around.
In an astonishingly one-sided first half in Seville, Spain somehow failed to make their domination count and never recovered.
The Swedes, happy to sit back and defend, needed goalkeeper Olsen to make a string of saves to keep them level. Perhaps the best came from a Dani Olmo close-range header after 17 minutes, whilst Alvaro Morata also missed a huge opportunity when put clean through by Jordi Alba.
In fact, Spain almost went into the break 1-0 down when Alexander Isak forced his way into the penalty area in a rare Swedish attack and saw his miss-hit shot cleared off the line and onto a post by defender Marcos Llorente.
It would have been the bank robbery of the decade had Sweden managed that, but they continued to frustrate after the break as Spain’s intensity dropped.
Enrique had, perhaps controversially, left prolific scorer and Europa League winner Gerard Moreno on the bench, also omitting Liverpool’s Thiago, and it became increasingly clear that Spain could be punished for their lack of attacking edge.
Sweden came agonisingly close to taking the lead after 61 minutes when the excellent Isak picked his way forcefully through the Spanish defence and crossed low for striker Marcus Berg, who was arriving at the far post. He should have scored, but instead stumbled and sent his effort bobbling into the air rather than towards goal.
Luis Enrique’s response was to make four key substitutions, turning to Thiago, Gerard, Sarabia and Oyarzabal in a bid to revitalise his line-up, with Manchester City’s Ferran Torres one of those to make way. But with the Swedes also adding new energy to the mix, it did little to change the momentum of the game.
The Spanish continued to dominate possession but, increasingly, it was less focused and less effective. The number of passes was high, but the list of chances low – and that’s a combination which doesn’t augur well for the rest of the tournament.
There was a late opportunity for Gerard Moreno, his header saved by the legs of the excellent Olsen from close range, but the Swedes held out comfortably enough.
It’s not a disastrous start, for Enrique but the pressure will build if Spain don’t produce more on Saturday when they face Poland in the same stadium in Seville; especially if Sweden managed to beat Slovakia 24 hours earlier in St Petersburg.
A defeat for Spain in that scenario would leave them bottom of Group E going into the final fixture against the Slovaks; and that is surely unthinkable.
Spain: Simon, Marcos Llorente, Laporte, Pau Torres, Jordi Alba, Koke (Ruiz 87), Rodri (Thiago 66), Gonzalez, Ferran Torres (Oyarzabal 74), Morata (Sarabia 66), Olmo (Gerard 74)
Unused subs: de Gea, Azpilicueta, Diego Llorente, Garcia, Sanchez, Gaya, Fabian, Traore
Sweden: Olsen, Lustig (Krafth 75), Danielson, Lindelof, Augustinsson, Sebastian Larsson, Ekdal, Olsson (Cajuste 84), Forsberg (Bengtsson, 84), Berg (Quaison 69), Isak (Claesson 69)
Unused subs: Johnsson, Svensson, Helander, Sema, Jansson, Nordfeldt, Jordan Larsson, Cajuste.