Before Spain’s final Euro 2020 group game against Slovakia on Wednesday, coach Luis Enrique said his team needed to 'uncork the cava'.
And after their struggles in attack against Sweden and Poland, out came the goals with a pop: five in one go. La Roja even overcame a second penalty miss of the week to secure the biggest win by any side at a European Championship since 2004. Good timing. “We uncorked the bottle of cava,” Luis Enrique said afterwards, in reference to his pre-match sound bite.
It must have been a relief for the former Barcelona boss, who had admitted ‘concern’ ahead of the match and said he just wanted his team to advance to the last 16.
In the end, Spain qualified comfortably, but their draws against Sweden and Poland meant that top spot was out of their hands and it was taken from their grasp as the Scandinavians sealed a dramatic 3-2 win over the Poles in added time in the other Group E game on Wednesday.
“This will give us great confidence,” Luis Enrique said of Spain’s win. “I think we are a good team: we don’t concede many chances and we create a lot, we press very well up top, although it’s true we have to improve in attack. Everything I see, I like.”
The return of Sergio Busquets proved pivotal for an upturn in form which has seen Spain avoid a calamitous group-stage exit and made fans believe that their team can go on to be contenders after all. Busquets missed the opening game after a positive Covid-19 test, but there was no question the Barcelona midfielder would be replaced in the squad. After watching from the stands in Spain’s game against Poland, he returned to the XI on Wednesday and everything suddenly seemed better.
“Busquets played an incredible match,” Luis Enrique said of his 32-year-old captain, who will now need a rest. “My goodness, how he played! Nothing we don’t know already. He didn’t want to come off at the end and his calves were bothering him, he could hardly move. It was very easy to make the decision to wait for him. I know him really well.”
Spain’s flurry of goals was welcome news for fans of La Roja and also Luis Enrique, but Alvaro Morata’s fragile confidence was not helped as he saw his first-half penalty saved by Martin Dubravka.
“We will play with Morata and 10 others,” Luis Enrique had announced before the Poland game and he was rewarded as his striker scored Spain’s goal in that match. But this was another setback for the 28-year-old.
At least the goals arrived in numbers this time, although Spain’s opener against Slovakia came courtesy of Dubravka punching the ball into his own net and then going walkabout in the build-up to the second, which was headed in superbly by Aymeric Laporte.
With a comfortable advantage for the first time in the competition, Spain were a different team and three more goals arrived in the second half: from Pablo Sarabia, substitute Ferran Torres and a Juraj Kucka own goal. For two of those, the defending was woeful again and how much can be learned from this thrashing of the team ranked 36th in FIFA’s world rankings remains to be seen.
Unfortunately for La Roja, Sweden’s late winner against Poland means they will have to do it the hard way. Instead of Ukraine in the last 16, Spain will now meet Croatia. And in the quarter-finals, there is a potential meeting with favourites France.
“Let’s not start talking about France,” Luis Enrique said on Wednesday. “We are going to wait and focus on the match we have against Croatia, which will be very difficult.
“Praise makes you weaker and we have to prepare well for this duel with a team that have lost Ivan Rakitic [to international retirement], but still have the eternal Luka Modric and very good players.”
Croatia will harbour bittersweet memories for Luis Enrique. Early in the Asturian’s reign as Spain coach, he oversaw a spectacular 6-0 win at home to the 2018 World Cup finalists, only to see his side lose the return 3-2 in Zagreb and miss out on a place in the latter stages of the Nations League. Five years ago, a late 2-1 defeat to Croatia in the final game of the group stages of Euro 2016 also cost Spain top spot in their sector and La Roja subsequently crashed out to Italy in the last 16.
Spain will go into Monday's clash in Copenhagen as favourites this time and the momentum from Wednesday’s win will help. Playing away from the extreme heat and poor pitch at Seville’s La Cartuja stadium should also aid La Roja, even if they will lose their home advantage.
With the bottle of bubbly uncorked, Spain will now need to sparkle and convert chances against Europe’s top teams as they seek a quarter-final spot at a major tournament for the first time since their Euro 2012 triumph.
Can they become continental champions again this time? Given that their route to the final sees them face Croatia, then possibly France, before a potential semi-final match-up with in-form Italy, it would perhaps be best to put the Champagne — or cava, in their case — on ice for now.