Spain back to win­ning ways

Europe’s brand new tour­na­ment kicks off

World Soccer - - World Service - GAVIN HAMIL­TON

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

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