Spain still bearing scars of last summer's horrors

Spain’s 1-0 Euro 2016 qualifier win at home to Ukraine did little to suggest the once all-conquering La Roja side have got over losing their unbeatable aura at last year’s World Cup.

Spain still bearing scars of last summer's horrors

Coach Vicente Del Bosque continued his gradual attempt to evolve his team, with Juventus centre-forward Alvaro Morata getting his first competitive start, and Real Madrid’s Isco given the playmaking reins.

The two 22 year olds impressed against the limited Ukrainians — with Morata scoring the game’s only goal with a slightly fortunate finish, and Isco being one of the few Spain players to feature consistently throughout the 90 minutes.

When Morata scored his first senior goal for Spain, on 27 minutes, he and his side looked set for a comfortable night. Twinkle-toed Andalusian Isco was thrilling the fans at Sevilla’s Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan with some lovely touches. At half-time it seemed likely Spain would go on and win comfortably.

But this was not the case. Andres Iniesta, superb before the break in his 103rd cap, faded completely out of the game.

Goalkeeper Iker Casillas, a bystander throughout the first period in his 161st international game, again looked unconvincing when called into action as Ukraine pressed for an equaliser. The defending European champions ended up hanging on for the final whistle.

Afterwards, an upbeat Ukraine coach Mykhailo Fomenko had told his press conference that his team had been “unlucky” and “could beat Spain in the return game”.

A downcast Del Bosque did not really disagree. “We played a good first half,” he told reporters.

“We got the three points, but we’re leaving unhappy as we dropped our level in the second half and let them dominate.”

The Madrid sports media thought similarly on Saturday morning. “Morata scores! and then a scare’, said the cover of AS. In Marca’s match report, headlined “Spain are still recovering”, Santiago Segurola wrote that “they did not send a convincing message to their fans, nor to their opponents.”

Spain have won their last three Group C matches – scoring eight times without conceding – since being shocked 2-1 in Slovakia last October.

However, with the confident Slovaks still top with a 100 per cent record, it looks like the 2012 winners’ automatic qualification will remain in question until a potentially decisive final group game in Kiev. Few thought that likely when the draw was made.

At their tiki-taka peak, between 2008 and 2012, Spain won plenty of games 1-0. This was not a problem though, as with Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso in midfield, once ahead they were able to kill the game by dominating possession. On Friday night they looked anything but secure, relying on profligate finishing from Ukraine to hold out.

AS editor Alfredo Relano put this shakiness down to the team still not having recovered mentally from their horrific experience last summer.

“This team left in Brazil the tremendous security which had allowed them to float through any situation,” wrote Relano. “Now the smallest thing makes them lose faith in themselves.”

The biggest fright Spain got at last summer’s World Cup was of course the 5-1 defeat to Holland in their opening game. So you’d wonder what the players are thinking now ahead of Tuesday’s friendly in Amsterdam, where they must again face the team who spooked them so in Salvador.

Del Bosque is likely to make more changes. Manchester United’s David De Gea, 24, will get another game in place of Casillas in goal. Bayern Munich left-back Juan Bernat, 22, will be another new face, given first choice Jordi Alba strained an adductor muscle on Friday.

In theory, Tuesday’s game could work as an exorcism — a comfortable win would allow a new-look Spain to put last summer’s horror show behind them. But Friday’s performance suggests it is more likely the ghosts of the past will linger for some time yet.

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