Spain back to winning ways
Europe’s brand new tournament kicks off
Spain got back to winning ways under new coach Luis Enrique by beating England 2-1 at Wembley and then thrashing World Cup finalists Croatia 6-0 in Elche. Those victories put La Roja in a commanding position in Group A4 of UEFA’s new Nations League, the competition launched to beef up the international calendar and deter the continent’s big nations from taking part in high-profile friendlies.
Luis Enrique wasted no time in making his mark on the Spanish squad. With David Silva, Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique having retired, there was no place for Koke or Jordi Alba, so youngsters were prominent – with Saul Niguez, Marco Asensio, Dani Ceballos, Jose Luis Gaya and Rodri all under 23 years of age.
Without Diego Costa, who withdrew from the squad though injury, new strikers Rodrigo and Iago Aspas gave Spain more mobility. Asensio scored a spectacular goal against Croatia and created three others, while Saul opened the scoring against Croatia and also scored at Wembley.
Croatia, who suffered their worst-ever defeat, were without the retired Danijel Subasic, Mario Mandzukic and Vedran Corluka, as well as defender Ivan Strinic following the diagnosis of a heart condition. But Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, who won his 100th cap in a friendly against Portugal a few days earlier, were in the side, along with in-form Anderlecht striker Ivan Santini.
“We’re empty, we fell down after the World Cup. Now we have to rise up again,” said Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic.
England manager Gareth Southgate stayed mostly loyal to the players who lost to Croatia in the World Cup semi-finals, but brought in defenders Luke Shaw and Joe Gomez – who both missed Russia through injury – and started Marcus Rashford in attack against Spain. He admitted his players came up short but seems no closer to finding a playmaker.
Germany and world champions France played out a goalless draw in Munich, with the visitors fielding a side almost unchanged from the World Cup Final. The exception was in goal, where Alphonse Areola stood in for the injured Hugo Lloris and made several impressive saves on his debut.
Leroy Sane was back in the Germany squad after his World Cup omission, appearing as a late substitute as Germany coach Joachim Low largely kept faith with the team that disappointed in Russia – with the notable, controversial exception of Mesut Ozil.
A few days later in Paris, France beat Holland, whose new coach Ronald Koeman gave a competitive debut to Ajax midfielder Frenkie De Jong. However, it was veteran Ryan Babel who dragged the Dutch back into the game after an early goal from Kylian Mbappe before a winner from Olivier Giroud.
In Group A2, Iceland began their new era under
Swedish coach Erik Hamren by suffering defeats to Switzerland and Belgium. Xherdan Shaqiri scored one and set up two others in Switzerland’s 6-0 victory, while Romelu Lukaku starred in Belgium’s 3-0 win.
Italy, under the new management of Roberto Mancini, were the big disappointment of Group A3. Jorginho’s penalty rescued a point against Poland in Bologna but they then lost 1-0 to Portugal in Lisbon. Mancini used 23 players in the two games, including nine different forwards. Mario Balotelli was heavily criticised for his performance against Poland, while
Federico Chiesa struggled against the Portuguese, who rested Cristiano Ronaldo and won with a goal from former Milan striker Andre Silva.
Ukraine established a commanding lead in Group B1 after Oleksandr Zinchenko struck in injury time to claim a 2-1 win over Czech Republic. A few days later in Lviv, in a game played behind closed doors as punishment for racist behaviour by fans, a late Andriy Yarmolenko penalty secured victory over Slovakia.
World Cup heroes Denis Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba were on target in Russia’s 2-1 victory over Turkey in Trabzon. Four days later, the Turks staged a dramatic late comeback to beat Sweden 3-2.
Edin Dzeko’s goal against Austria put Bosnia in the driving seat in Group B3, following an earlier 2-1 win over Northern Ireland. Wales beat Republic of Ireland 4-1 in boss Ryan Giggs’ first competitive game. But against stronger opposition a few days later, Denmark ran out 2-0 winners thanks to a brace from Christian Eriksen. Finland’s Teemu Pikku scored the only goal in both of his side’s wins over Hungary and Estonia, while Bozhidar Kraev scored both goals as Bulgaria won 2-0 in Slovenia, with sub Radoslav Vasilev’s header securing a home 1-0 win over Norway.
Scotland beat Albania 2-0 in their Nations League opener, while Aleksander Mitrovic scored both of Serbia’s goals in a 2-2 draw with Romania, who had earlier been held to a goalless draw with Montenegro.
Luxembourg top Group D2 after wins over Moldova and San Marino, while Kosovo got a first competitive victory with a 2-0 triumph over Faroe Islands.
“We’re empty, we fell down after the World Cup. Now we have to rise up again” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic.
Pressure...Portugal’s Andre Silva causes problems for Italy’s defence
Lift off...Dani ceballos picks up Marco Asensio in celebration of Spain’s third goal against croatia