Ini­esta re­mains peer­less

Lesotho Times - - Sport -

TOULOUSE — He sym­bol­ised the end of an era af­ter a dis­as­trous first-round exit from the 2014 World Cup, but An­dres Ini­esta’s crit­ics were eat­ing their words as the cham­pi­ons flexed their Euro 2016 mus­cles on Mon­day.

On a rain-soaked pitch in windy Toulouse, it took Vi­cente del Bosque’s two-time de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons 87 min­utes to break down a resolute Czech Re­pub­lic de­fence.

Yet, by the end of a com­pletely one-sided per­for­mance that al­layed any ex­ist­ing fears over the wily Spa­niard’s new-look side, it was the magic of Ini­esta that made the dif­fer­ence.

With the Czechs hang­ing on des­per­ately amid a sec­ond-half on­slaught that saw Ar­se­nal ‘keeper Petr Cech thwart chance af­ter chance, Ini­esta curled in a per­fect cross for Ger­ard Pique to head past the help­less Cech into the far cor­ner of the net.

Hav­ing been frus­trated for so long, the re­lief from the Spa­niards was pal­pa­ble when the fi­nal whis­tle went.

But when the emo­tions cooled, the full im­pact of Ini­esta’s lead­er­ship came to the fore in the light of the re­cent in­ter­na­tional re­tire­ments of Xavi Her­nan­dez and Xabi Alonso.

“He is fun­da­men­tal for us,” said Ini­esta’s Barcelona team­mate Ser­gio Bus­quets. “His abil­ity to desta­bilise the op­po­si­tion is un­be­liev­able. And as the years go by, he just gets bet­ter.”

One of sev­eral new Spain faces mak­ing their ma­jor fi­nals de­but, Ath­letic Bil­bao striker Aritz Aduriz sat on the bench as Ju­ven­tus marks­man Al­varo Mo­rata spurned a hat­ful of chances in front of Cech’s goal.

Although he re­placed Mo­rata for the last 20 min­utes, dur­ing which he sent a spec­u­la­tive over­head kick wide of the tar­get, it was Ini­esta that caught his eye: “He’s mar­vel­lous.”

Aduriz added: “The im­por­tant thing is we won and took the points. That’s cru­cial for any first game.”

Af­ter the shock of 2014, Spain’s fans had ev­ery right to breathe a col­lec­tive sigh of re­lief. And Ini­esta would be for­given for think­ing back to how things have changed in two years.

It was June 19, 2014 and Spain, the 2010 World Cup win­ners, awoke with a thump­ing sporting hang­over af­ter de­feats to Hol­land (5-1) and Chile (2-0) ended their ti­tle de­fence af­ter just 180 min­utes.

Span­ish sports daily Marca did not hold back in its ap­praisal of the ill-fated cam­paign, their front page show­ing a de­jected Ini­esta from be­hind with the sim­plest of head­lines: “The End”.

Two years later, Del Bosque has coun­tered the re­tire­ments of Xabi Alonso and Xavi Her­nan­dez by draft­ing in new faces.

Celta Vigo winger Nolito, Mo­rata, Bay­ern Mu­nich mid­fielder Thi­ago Al­can­tara and Aduriz all made their Eu­ro­pean Cham­pi­onship de­but in Toulouse.

But Ini­esta still pulls the strings, and while he has wel­comed Del Bosque’s new play­ers, the softly-spo­ken ma­gi­cian, no­tably in the ab­sence of Xavi, is happy to shoul­der the ex­tra re­spon­si­bil­ity.

“It is the first im­por­tant tour­na­ment with­out him (Xavi), but there are new team­mates,” he said.

“We’ve al­ways had this style, and we have to main­tain it as long as pos­si­ble. When play­ers that are so de­ci­sive aren’t with us, the rest need to take that re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Spain will look to build on their win when they face Tur­key, beaten 1-0 Croa­tia in their Group D opener on Sun­day, on 17 June.

For Ini­esta, a first win on the board au­gurs well for their bid for a third con­sec­u­tive crown.

“It is a happy day for us to start the compe- tition like this,” he added.

“It’s very pos­i­tive for us. The first game is al­ways the most dif­fi­cult in terms of ten­sion, but we’re happy (to win).

“It was one move which gave us a very im­por­tant vic­tory and the feel­ing is it should help us to con­tinue get­ting bet­ter.” — AFP

Spain mid­fielder An­dres Ini­esta.

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