KEIR RADNEDGE in TOULOUSE —- Spain, European champions in 2008 and 2012, opened their pursuit of a record-extending third successive crown in winning style here in Toulouse. But it took a late goal from Gerard Pique and an even later crucial save from David De Gea to see off a tireless Czech Republic.
Pique headed the winning goal in the 87th minute and keeper De Gea raised his fists to parry a thundering drive from Vladimir Darida deep into stoppage time. Victory was the ideal way for Spain to exorcise the memory of their opening embarrassment at the World Cup two years ago in Brazil when that particular crown was sent tumbling after an opening match battering by Holland.
Many managers would not have survived such a pride-ripping thumping but it was to the credit of federation president Angel Maria Villar that he and his board were not prepared to fall for panic measures.
Hence Vicente Del Bosque remained in place, entrusted to rebuild after his own style a fusion of Barcelona and Real Madrid orphaned by the departure from the scene of midfield orchestrator Xavi Hernandez.
Here was a first competitive insight into precisely how effective Del Bosque’s own handiwork could prove.
A sign of the times was the replacement in goal of veteran captain Iker Casillas by De Gea, the Manchester United keeper being trusted to hold his nerve despite the outside pressures of lurid allegations concerning his private life.
No such changing of the guard by the Czechs, with the familiar faces of Petr Cech in goal and Tomas Rosicky at the point of the midfield diamong. Not that the Czech attack saw much of the first half as Spain maintained their greedy tradition of monopolising possession.
Alvaro Morata should have done better than shoot into Cech’s midriff from close range in the 15th minute and the Arsenal keeper contributed another sharp save from David Silva.
The Czechs, by way of rare reply, produced one raid shortly before half-time which ended in De Gea standing tall to save from midfielder Darida, the pick of the Czech outfield players.
Spain raised the pace dramatically at the start of the second half – and the Czechs responded in kind when they managed to break free every now and again.
Roman Hudnik deflected a cross shot against the outside of his own post one minute after the restart and Cech had to scramble to save from Nolito after the ensuing corner.
Substitute Aritz Aduriz and Thiago Alcantara both lost control when poised to break the deadlock while Spain had a lucky escape of their own when Cesc Fabregas cleared a swerving cross out of his own goal area with De Gea stranded.
Eventually Spain reaped the reward for their relentless pressure. Newly-arrived Pedro darted across the face of the Czech defence and a delightful sleight of foot from Andres Iniesta secured him the enough time and space to deliver an inch-perfect deep cross which Pique converted with a flying header from the edge of the six-yard box.
The Czechs raced back downfield from the kickoff but, with Spain’s defence reeling, De Gea stood tall to defy Darida and the champions were home and dry.
Spain: De Gea – Juanfran, Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba – Cesc Fabregas (Thiago Alcantara 70), Busquets, Iniesta – David Silva, Morata (Aduriz 62), Nolito (Pedro 82).
Czech Rep: Cech – Kaderabek, Sivok, Hubnik, Limbersky – Darida, Plasil – Gebre Selassie (Sural 86), Rosicky |(Pavelka 88), Krejci – Necid (Lafata 75).
Referee: Marciniak (Poland).