Spain opened its defense of the UEFA European Under-21 Championship with a 1-0 win in Group B over Russia at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium last night. But it left it late, scoring the game’s only goal eight minutes from time.
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Real Madrid forward Alvaro Morata, who came off the bench to make his debut for Spain, finally managed to break Russia’s stubborn defense after wave after wave of Spanish forays had been repeatedly thwarted by the physical, tactically organized Russians.
Julen Lopetegui’s charges had been repeatedly frustrated by a combination of their own faulty follow-through and Russia’s sturdy backline. But eventually the Spaniards proved their superiority, when Thiago Alcantara swept in a free kick from the right and Morata’s back header sent the ball flashing past Nikolai Zabolotni’s fingertips.
Morata, a 63rd-minute replacement for Iker Muniain, almost grabbed a late second, but hit the post with a shot on the stretch.
Unbeaten in qualifying, Spain came into the tournament as the team to beat and took the early initiative on a balmy Jerusalem evening. Martin Montoya rifled a deflected shot just wide of the far post and Marc Batra headed over from the ensuing corner.
Spain’s control of possession was met by Russia’s containment strategy, which limited the Spaniards’ scoring chances in the first half. Zabolotni made two saves of note from long-range strikes: The goalkeeper stopped Thiago’s free kick and Asier Illarramendi’s 25-meter drive.
Russia coach Nikolai Pisarev selected Real Madrid-based Denis Cheryshev to lead his attack in the absence of Fedor Smolov and Alan Dzagoev, who will join the squad after the senior side’s World Cup qualifier against Portugal today. Cheryshev set up Pavel Yakolev for a dipping volley that flew narrowly wide − the only scare Spain faced all game as the red tide kept rolling toward the Russia goal. Ultimately, their persistence paid off.
Yesterday’s other Group B game was a thriller, with the Netherlands beating Germany 3-2 with a goal in the last minute of regular time.
The Dutch had a wonderful first half, going ahead in the 21st minute as Adam Maher, who previously missed an easy chance, drove the ball low into the net. Then Georginio Wijnaldum beat three German defenders to make it 2-0 in the 38th minute.
But the Germans shuffled their pack during the break and came out fighting, pulling a goal back two minutes into the second half through a Sebastian Rode penalty. Germany was a different team than it had been in the first half, and it was no surprise when captain Lewis Holtby, who plays for Tottenham in the English Premier League, equalized eight minutes from the end with a fine solo goal.
It looked like that great soccer cliche − a game played for 90 minutes, at the end of which the Germans always win − would prove itself true yet again. But with the clock winding down, the German defense failed to pick up Leroy Fer as a corner kick was floated into their penalty area, leaving the Dutch midfielder a free header for the winning goal.