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Pique is Spain´s hero – whether they like it or not

Boos, jeers, whistles, protests – and a deafening roar. Gerard Pique certainly knows how to get the fans responding.

His vocal support for Catalan independence and belligerent goading of Real Madrid has needled Spain supporters for years, but the Barcelona man proved the hero as they got their Euro 2016 campaign off to a winning start in Toulouse.

It is remarkable that Spain’s 1-0 win over Czech Republic is the first time they have won a World Cup or European Championship opener under Vicente del Bosque. Nerves had begun to settle in this week, the coach claimed beforehand – hardly surprising, since this game took place two years to the day since that infamous 5-1 thrashing by Netherlands that led many to wonder whether La Roja’s golden era had met an embarrassing end.

Five players who started that demolition by the Dutch – Sergio Ramos, Pique, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta – began the game in Toulouse, but there was far greater composure about Spain as they started the defence of this particular trophy. The team has evolved, but lessons have not been forgotten.

On Monday, Del Bosque’s flat 4-3-3 offered greater security against the counter-attacks which Arjen Robben exploited so devastatingly in Salvador two years ago. Ramos was practically an extra midfielder during Spain’s long spells with the ball, but Busquets was exemplary in plugging the gaps this time.

Iniesta, Fabregas and Nolito all excelled, and David de Gea had only three saves to make throughout the 90 minutes – all of them of top quality, and made after spells during which the Manchester United man must have wondered if the ball would ever reach his penalty area. 

Of course, it was not perfect. More was expected in attack against a team without a clean sheet in their last 10 matches before this one, but, then again, most had written off Netherlands two years ago, too.

This time, however, there was no self-destruct button in Del Bosque’s machine, no gung-ho surge for a breakthrough which played so perfectly into Louis van Gaal’s plans two years ago. Far from panic as the minutes ticked down, Spain’s pass-and-move precision was maintained outside a packed Czech area, and Aritz Aduriz, Juanfran, Iniesta, Silva and Ramos all had opportunities before Pique turned home his club captain’s sublime cross. 

The Barcelona defender has remained defiant in the face of the fan whistling, and his ferocious stare into the celebrating stands was a poignant moment in this most tiresome of sagas.

Spain are up and running in France and have now not conceded a goal for 600 minutes at the European Championship finals. Pique deserves adulation for his part in that. Perhaps now he’ll get it. 

Mon 13 Jun, 2016
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