A classy performance from Spain, guided by Robert Moreno in his familiar smart-casual getup, saw them claim an impressive 1-2 victory in Romania last night. For close to an hour, La Roja were virtually faultless. With Fabián and Ceballos in the side, they have an incredible passing range, and you won’t find many more willing runners than Jesús Navas and Jordi Alba to bomb down the wings time and time again. It is especially enjoyable to witness the Indian summer of Navas’ career, preferred to Dani Carvjal here.
Perhaps the most pressing concern after the shambolic Russia 2018 World Cup campaign was the blunt nature of the attack. Those who managed to stay awake for the full 120 minutes, penalties, and eventual elimination against the host nation last year, may have found themselves wondering why Rodrigo and Aspas were kept on the bench for so long. Both Luís Enrique and now Robert Moreno have followed a similar train of thought in the intervening months, with auditions being handed to Rodrigo, Morata and Paco Alcácer in attempt to spearhead the front line. It seems that Diego Costa’s race, which only really briefly spluttered into life against Portugal last summer, is now run as far as the national team is concerned.
Last night in Bucharest, Alcácer led the line, with Rodrigo supporting from the right. Barely 30 seconds had been played when the Dortmund man was played through by Navas, with his attempted chip blocked by Tatarusanu in goal. Just five minutes later, Fabián spotted more clever movement from Alcácer and launched a through ball from his deep-lying quarterback role. Having measured his stride, he sent a low effort across goal towards the bottom corner. Tatarusanu, however, rose to the challenge and kept the match scoreless. It seemed like only a matter of time until the deadlock was broken, and when Navas jinked away from his man in the thirteenth minute and picked out the onrushing Alba at the back post, the Romanian keeper showed he had quick feet, too, to get across his line and block.
The Spanish momentum was irresistible and it looked as if the home side had been sent out expecting a sporting contest of a different variety. Yet, the cutting edge had not been found.
There was general confusion when the referee blew his whistle and appeared to point to the spot on 27 minutes, but the guilty look on Deac’s face told its own story. Ceballos had inadvertently cut out Alba’s pass towards the waiting Alcácer, but the inadvisable lunge from the Romanian midfielder yielded a predictable outcome. He had trod on Ceballos’ standing foot and could have no complaints. Step up Sergio Ramos, hungry as ever on the occasion of his 166th cap. Yes, 166. The captain has made an inauspicious start to the season for a Real Madrid side with well-documented problems, but this was an elegant finish. He waited, held his nerve as Tatarusano blinked first, and sent the ball into the opposite corner. His celebration (see picture above) may not have been so stylish, but didn’t deserve the yellow card it received. 0-1, and the domination was paying off.
Opportunities to extend the lead were plentiful, and, to be honest, Rodrigo and Alcácer both should have done so within 10 minutes of the opener. The former’s first-time effort was too central when picked out by Ceballos, and when he turned provider barely two minutes later, the overworked Tatarusano pulled off a great save to tip Alcácer’s clean strike over the top. As impressive as Spain were throughout the first half, and they really did blow their opponents away, it seemed as if it may be another case of huffing and puffing, Ramos’ penalty notwithstanding.
Perhaps aware of this thorn in their side, they wasted no time in setting the record straight in the second half. An exquisite, defence-splitting ball courtesy of the outside of Ceballos’ right boot picked out Jordi Alba. The Barcelona man, defender in name only, made Alcácer an offer he couldn’t refuse from his classic inside-left position. The net gaped and it was all that Spain’s number nine could do to side-foot home. 0-2.
The pattern of play continued apace, and there were no clouds on the horizon when Cosmin Contra, a bullish presence in the technical area throughout, made his first change. The Romanian coach, unrecognisable from his heyday of glorious failure with Alavés, deserves a lot of credit here for the impact his alterations had on the match. Florin Andone was the first man off the bench, and with him came the storm.
He had been on the pitch less than three minutes when Puscas cleverly guided Benzar’s deep cross back into the six-yard box. The Galatasaray man was waiting to stoop and head home past Kepa. 1-2. Contrary to all forecasts, the game was back on.
Contra knew it too, quickly introducing Hagi and Maxim to try and take advantage of the prevailing wind. Moreno tried to freshen up the Spanish attack by replacing Rodrigo and Ceballos with Oyarzabal and Sarabia, making his debut here. But Spain’s stranglehold on the match had slipped, and while they had a few attempts of their own from outside the area, they had begun to look susceptible whenever Romania turned over possession in midfield. One such occasion, in the 79th minute, threatened to undo all the good work of the opening hour.
Maxim split Spain’s centre-back partnership of Ramos and Llorente with a laser-guided pass from deep in his own half, and Llorente could only stop Puscas by clipping him just outside the area. Being the last man, protest as he might, he could not avoid the red card. Hagi smelt blood, and was frustrated to see his well-directed freekick expertly blocked by his own teammates.
Hermoso was quickly brought on for Alcácer as Moreno prepared his troops for the late onslaught. As the clock ticked into added time, it came. When Spain tried to keep an exceptionally high line to defend a freekick on the right, Hagi cleverly rolled in Puscas. The Reading man’s performance in this match was something of a crescendo, but the angle here prevented him from squeezing the ball past Kepa. Spain dealt well with the resulting corner, but when it was fed back out to Hagi, he curled a scrumptious cross onto Puscas’ head. This time, Kepa really had to show why he has replaced de Gea as Spain’s number one, sticking out a left leg to deny the hosts an equaliser. He couldn’t prevent the rebound falling to Grigore, but for the Romanians this was a case of the wrong man in the wrong place, with the defender firing over from an angle.
That was to be their last opportunity, and Spain claimed another three points in their inexorable march towards next year’s European championships.
“Is Hagi a common surname in Romania?”, I hear you ask. Well, I have no idea. But, yes, Ianis Hagi, who will represent Genk in this season’s Champions League, is the son of the great Gheorghe Hagi. Below you’ll find highlights of last night’s match, followed by a little reminder of Hagi senior’s glittering career for dessert. Enjoy!