At half-time Alvaro Morata’s catharsis appeared complete. He had scored a goal, repaying his manger’s unwavering faith in the face of fierce criticism from his own fans, and had pointed Spain towards three valuable points. But 45 minutes later, after more missed chances and Robert Lewandowski’s powerful headed equaliser, he cut a frustrated figure on the bench and at the end of a wild night in Seville, all we know is that Group E is going to the wire.
Poland dented Spain’s hopes of qualifying and revealed some of their flaws in the process. Without the ball sticking to the glue-shoes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, this iteration of Spain can be disrupted and flustered, its pressure points exposed by moments of concerted rebellion. Poland couldn’t press high and hard all night but when they did they were more than a match for their hosts.
A 1-1 draw has thrown Group E wide open and it is set up for a thrilling climax. Sweden have four points, Slovakia three, Spain two and Poland one. All four can still progress, and Wednesday night’s final two games will be monumentally tense affairs. Poland meet Sweden in St Petersburg while Spain host Slovakia in Seville with everything to play for.
Spain did not expect it to be this way, still searching for a way to win after two games, and the inquest into Luis Enrique’s new-look team will brutal should they exit at the group stage. Possession has been easy to come by, and chances too, but against Sweden and particularly Poland they have looked susceptible to the counter-attack, while questions will remain over their cutting edge despite Morata’s much-needed goal.
Many in Spain wanted to see Gerard Moreno start in Morata’s place, but instead Villarreal’s 30-goal striker played on the right wing as the only new name in the starting XI, replacing Manchester City’s Ferran Torres. Sergio Busquets was back and available after he’d been ruled out with coronavirus, but the national captain was left on the bench.
Poland had the first meaningful sight on goal when Leeds United’s Mateusz Klich fired just over from 25 yards, but before long Spain’s midfield began to click into gear. Pass, pass, pass: this side are not as patient as the tiki-taka era, nor as controlled, but they do at least have a determined attitude to winning the ball back as quickly as possible, which helped get a foothold and forced Poland to be precise with their spells in possession to make them count.
Morata’s goal came when he anticipated Moreno’s shot falling at his feet and reacted quickly to steer the ball past Wojciech Szczesny, only for the flag to go up. As a voice crackled in the referee’s ear, the stadium fell quiet. Then the familiar box signal, a blow of the whistle and a dramatic point to the centre spot. There is nothing more underwhelming in modern football than a goal awarded while both sets of players are preparing for a defensive free-kick, but Morata did not care a jot.
He ran to the touchline and hugged Luis Enrique with such force the manager nearly toppled over, a hug with feeling. The striker had been booed by Spanish fans in both of his last two games – the warm-up against Portugal and their Euro 2020 opener with Sweden – after missing chances he might expect to score. Now he had scored a goal he didn’t think existed, and the relief poured out.
“I’ve told Morata to keep doing what he is doing, to keep contributing everything he gives us in attack and defence,” Luis Enrique told reporters on Friday. “Tomorrow it will be Morata and 10 others.” That emphatic vote of confidence nipped any potential will-he-won’t-he-start conversations in the bud and it had the desired effect as his goal gave Spain the lead. Karol Swiderski went closest to replying for Poland with a powerful low shot which crashed against the post and rebounded into the path of Lewandowski, who volleyed straight at the rushing Unai Simon.
But Poland started the second half looking refreshed and full of intensity once more, and within 10 minutes of the restart they were level. Kamil Jozwiak crossed from the right and on the edge of the six-yard box Lewandowksi shunted Aymeric Laporte out of his way, leapt high above the Spanish defence and powered a header into the corner.
Poland’s raucous celebrations turned to protestations moments later when Spain were awarded a penalty as Moreno was fouled in the box. It seemed soft, the ball already gone when a tiny bit of contact was made by Brighton’s Jakub Moder, but the referee was told to consult his pitch-side monitor – always an ominous sign – and he duly pointed to the spot. Moreno grabbed the ball with confidence and struck it with conviction, but his shot hit the post and Morata couldn’t organise his feet quickly enough to direct the inviting rebound into a gaping goal.
Both goalscorers had fleeting moments in the final stages. Lewandowksi led a counter-attack but didn’t get the return pass he needed to finish it. Morata had two opportunities before he was taken off, first trying to spin and fire inside the box but white shirts surrounded him and hounded him off it, then getting smothered by a sprawling Szczesny from six yards. The spoils would be shared, and the destiny of both teams will be decided on the group’s final day.
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