UEFA EURO 2016 – Day 4

Spain’s attempt to win a record third European Championship in a row began with a last-gasp victory over the Czech Republic. Gerard Pique headed in a late Andres Iniesta cross, finally breaking the resistance of their stubborn opponents. Alvaro Morata, Jordi Alba and David Silva had earlier efforts saved as the holders lacked a cutting edge. Spain had also survived a scare when Cesc Fabregas hooked a Theodor Gebre Selassie header off the goalline. Vladimir Darida had a chance to equalise but Spain keeper David de Gea, who started the game after a build-up dominated by allegations against him in the Spanish press, blocked his volley from 10 yards. There might have been a few Spanish nerves after the team’s exit at the group stage of the 2014 World Cup and loss to 137th-ranked Georgia in their final warm-up game before Euro 2016.

Spain’s goalscoring threat in attack was a worry and any anxiety would not have been helped during a first half in which La Roja had 74% possession and made 378 passes but still failed to engineer a breakthrough. Morata led the Spanish attack with support from Silva and Nolito, and they were comfortably contained by a disciplined and organised defence. Spain increased their urgency after the break but it was a similar story as they failed to translate their dominance into goals. Silva’s chipped ball put Alba through on goal but the left-back’s control let him down, while Silva cut inside and sent a left-foot shot wide. When substitute Aritz Aduriz put an acrobatic overhead kick wide, it looked like being a frustrating start for Vicente del Bosque’s side – but centre-back Pique broke the deadlock in the 87th minute.

Ciaran Clark scored an agonising own goal as the Republic of Ireland were held to a frustrating draw against Sweden in their opening Euro 2016 fixture in Paris. Wes Hoolahan gave the Republic a deserved lead shortly after half-time with a crisply struck half-volley worthy of opening the scoring in any match. Martin O’Neill’s team had struck the woodwork and gone close several times prior to scoring. But, after taking the lead they found themselves under increasing pressure and conceded when Clark, chosen ahead of Richard Keogh in the centre of defence, headed a low cross from Zlatan Ibrahimovic into his own net. The equaliser came from one of the few moments of quality from the Sweden captain, who collected a neat backheel from substitute John Guidetti and raced to the byeline before drilling in a low cross.

Jeff Hendrick drew a late save from Andreas Isaksson but there was to be no winner at the end of a feisty, scrappy match the Republic shaded but could not close out. Commitment, passion and determination were much in evidence at the Stade de France, with those workmanlike qualities comfortably eclipsing any quality and finesse on show. But, in the end, neither side had quite enough to prevail and are left to ponder a result that is hardly disastrous but not exactly what either wanted. Both have remaining Group E fixtures against Italy and Belgium – the two favourites to progress – and have arguably missed out on their best chance to get a crucial victory. In a tournament with 16 qualifiers from the group stage, three points would have taken one of them a huge step towards reaching the next round.

Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle scored as Italy began their Euro 2016 campaign with victory over much-fancied Belgium in Lyon. Sunderland’s Giaccherini slotted home in the first half after collecting Leonardo Bonucci’s superb long pass. Southampton’s Pelle sealed the win in injury time with an emphatic volley following an incisive break. Belgium were very disappointing, with Romelu Lukaku and Divock Origi wasteful in front of goal. Everton forward Lukaku curled over from the edge of the box with just the keeper to beat while Liverpool’s Origi missed two opportunities to head his side level. Before the tournament began some pundits condemned this Italy squad for a lack of quality, and even coach Antonio Conte said: “It isn’t a good time for our football.”

The soon-to-be-Chelsea boss added: “It’s important the squad has a good spirit. I work a lot at this.” On the evidence of this game, that is not the only thing he has worked at. Italy’s triumph was a result of superior organisation and discipline against 11 Belgian individuals who appear to possess, on paper at least, the greater talent. Both sides now face games against the Republic of Ireland and Sweden, who drew 1-1 in the Group E opener earlier on Monday. With 16 of 24 teams progressing from the group stage, Italy took a huge step towards advancing with victory against their likeliest challengers.

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