Captain Cesc Fabregas missed a penalty on his 100th international appearance as Mario Gaspar’s debut goal earned Spain a 1-0 win over Ukraine in Kiev on Monday.
With Spain having already sealed their Euro 2016 place, the Chelsea man skippered a youthful XI but failed to cap his special night with a goal, instead seeing a penalty saved after defender Mario scored the crucial goal midway through the first half.
The Villarreal full-back was one of two debutants in the visitors’ defence, alongside Xabi Etxeita, but his well-taken header was enough to limit Ukrainian hopes of progression – second-placed Slovakia doing enough to go through regardless with a 4-2 win in Luxembourg.
Fabregas should have made life more comfortable but failed to double the lead, with Mykhaylo Fomenko’s side refusing to give up hope of snatching a top-two position after falling behind.
The 28-year-old – playing in front of a watching Jose Mourinho – was withdrawn shortly after the hour having missed his fourth spot-kick for Spain in as many attempts.
While it was a frustrating evening for Fabregas, the likes of Mario and Nolito bolstered their chances of featuring in France next year with strong displays, and David de Gea pulled off a string of impressive saves to leave Ukraine having to negotiate the play-offs.
Debutant Mario endured a tricky start in Kiev – outfoxed down the left early on by Artem Kravets, who cut inside and crossed only to see Ruslin Rotan fail to add the finish in the area.
Milestone man Fabregas had Spain’s first chance when he collected Isco’s pass, surged through the middle, and fired narrowly over the crossbar nine minutes in.
Having first saved from Kravetz, De Gea then produced a magnificent reflex stop to deny Rotan with his right foot, before Mario headed Spain into the lead.
Thiago Alacantara and Nolito combined down the left before the Bayern Munich man found Mario at the far post to ensur
e a dream debut for the full-back.
Just a minute later, Fabregas looked set to celebrate his landmark appearance with a goal having been fouled in the area by Oleksandr Kucher, but Andriy Pyatov produced a strong right-handed save to deny the skipper from the spot.
Spain were almost pegged back when Denys Garmash headed over amid pinball in the Spain box, with De Gea clearing a dangerous whipped free-kick from the left on the stroke of half-time.
And Fomenko’s men brought that momentum into the second half as the lively Andriy Yarmolenko twice went close to levelling, while Spain had the ball in the net courtesy of Mikel San Jose prior to the hour mark only for it to be ruled out for a foul in the build-up.
De Gea again showed his quality to palm away another Garmash header as Ukraine’s increased pressure coincided with Luxembourg fighting back from 3-0 down to within a goal of Slovakia.
However, there was to be no turnaround in Luxembourg – Slovakia re-establishing a two-goal cushion – and Spain’s much-changed back line shut out the hosts to extend their winning run to five matches.