It took Spain 82 minutes to finally get their goal after chance upon chance were left wanting, but Álvaro Morata's header on a set piece would eventually give Spain a 1-0 win in their opener against Russia at the UEFA U-21 Championship.
It was a tough result for the Russians, who played admirably throughout and were without Fedor Smolov and Alan Dzagoev (the pair were called up to the senior squad for a qualifier against Portugal on June 7).
For all of the chances that Spain created, however, the team certainly earned this result.
Not surprisingly, Spain had most of the dangerous first-half chances. For all of the team's possession, though, the final bit of class was lacking early.
Marc Bartra had the game's first excellent chance in the 10th minute, but his header off a free kick flew just over the bar.
Thiago Alcântara nearly scored the game's first goal with an optimistic strike on a free kick from 35 yards out, but Russian keeper Nikolai Zabolotny was able to knock the low, dipping attempt away from the bottom corner.
Christian Tello had a solid chance to give Spain the lead in the 37th minute. The Barcelona man, who was very bright on the wing for much of the first half, was played into the left of the box and ripped a shot toward goal, but Zabolotny had the angle covered and the near-post effort only found the side netting.
Less than a minute later, it was Russia which nearly opened the scoring, as Taras Burlak beat David de Gea but saw his shot go just wide to the left of the post.
Zabolotny continued his strong first 45, knocking clear an Asier Illarramendi strike from distance in stoppage time. Russia promptly handled two consecutive corners from Spain before the half came to a close.
All in all, Russia had to feel pretty good about the first half. Despite conceding 65 percent of possession to Spain, the Russians didn't really give up many promising scoring chances to the Spanish side.
Isco set up Rodrigo with a brilliant chance just minutes into the second half, lofting a picture-perfect cross into the middle of the box. Surprisingly, the normally clinical striker was off-target, sending his header wide of the net.
A minute later, Isco once again found Rodrigo in the box with a cross, this time after cutting brilliantly toward the touch line. And again, the striker headed his effort wide after contorting his body to meet the ball—though this attempt one was certainly a tougher take.
Spain continued to create the better chances and fail to capitalize on them.
Tello was found in space on the right of the box, but chose to rip a shot into the keeper's arms rather than center a feed for two teammates streaming into the box. Meanwhile, substitute Morata couldn't put his glancing header on frame in the 67th minute.
Morata would have a chance to redeem himself in the 74th minute. After another dazzling display of dribbling from Isco, the crafty Spaniard found Morata with space to shoot on the edge of the box. However, Morata's curling effort didn't quite curl enough and went out of play wide right.
For all of Spain's dominance, the team was surely getting a bit nervous as the clock ticked down. Still, it was a pretty standard performance for a Spanish national team at any level, as Dermot Corrigan of ESPN noted:
Spain U-21s up to 70% possession, 15 mins left. Still 0-0. I guess this is good experience for what comes at senior level.— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) June 6, 2013
But, finally, after threatening so many times to score, Spain would get their goal in the 82nd minute.
Who was Man of the Match?
Thiago sent a brilliant free kick into the box, where Morata was there to this time put a glancing header into the net and give Spain a late lead. Despite all of Spain's technical prowess and precise buildup play, it was a set piece that ultimately gave them the lead.
Footy is a funny game, isn't it?
Morata nearly had a second in the 89th minute. The ever-dangerous Isco found the goalscorer with a fine, low cross, but Morata hit the right post on the attempt.
Russia were unable to generate a goal in the waning moments and Spain walked away with a rather nervy opening win in this tournament.
Man of the Match: Isco, Spain
For my money, Isco was the brightest player on the pitch this afternoon. His combination of savvy dribbling and incisive passes created countless opportunities for Spain and he easily could have had three assists on the afternoon.
As Dermot Corrigan of ESPN noted, it was the sort of performance that should make Malaga very hesitant to sell him this summer.
Isco's good second half for Spain U-21s maybe just changed Malaga owner's summer transfer plans?— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) June 6, 2013
There isn't a team in Europe that wouldn't love to have the crafty Spaniard and he proved it on Thursday.
Spain will next face a very, very dangerous Germany side on June 9 in what will be the most anticipated match of the group stage. Russia will face a daunting task on that same day against the Netherlands.