Spain edged a step closer to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup after defeating Albania 2-0 on Sunday after a pair of second-half goals from Diego Costa and Nolito guided them to a convincing victory at Loro Borici Stadium.
Manager Julen Lopetegui's side now sit atop qualification Group G despite Italy's snatching a late 3-2 win in their trip to Macedonia, while fourth-placed Israel took a 2-1 win over Liechtenstein earlier in the day.
Albania entered Sunday's fixture two points clear at the top of Group G after beating Liechtenstein and Macedonia, but the visit of Spain proved to be the straw that ended their winning start to qualification.
There was concern for centre-back Sergio Ramos, however, after he hobbled off the pitch with a knee injury.
Spanish newspaper Marca provided a breakdown of the latest Group G standings after all of Sunday's matches came to a close:
MARCA in English @MARCAinENGLISH
GROUP G TABLE 1. Spain 🇪🇸 7 2. Italie🇮🇹 7 3. Albania🇦🇱 6 4. Israel🇮🇱 6 5. Macedonia🇲🇰 1 6. Liechtenstein🇱🇮 02016-10-9 20:42:42
Spain opened Sunday's meeting as they tend to do, taking an iron grip on possession that saw Albania scrambling to secure anything close to a fair share of the ball throughout the opening 45 minutes.
And yet, even though it was the hosts who saw less of the ball, Lopetegui's men didn't look like creating much by way of genuine scoring chances for most of the first half. Spanish newspaper AS identified just how little the home outfit were being troubled in front of goal:
AS English @English_AS
Albania are looking pretty comfortable at the back, limiting Spain to three shots on target. The hosts haven't bothered De Gea at all yet.2016-10-9 19:55:52
The Albanians were one of the surprise packages of Euro 2016, and it was largely through their counter-attacking work that they experienced much fortune during their stay in France.
Yahoo's Andrew Gaffney highlighted the visitors' main concern after boasting such an advantage in possession, and Spain went in at the half-time interval undoubtedly seeking a more robust response upon their return:
Andrew Gaffney @GaffneyVLC
Spain playing an awful lot like post-Henry era Arsenal. Dominate possession but seem incapable of carving out any real chances of their own.2016-10-9 20:02:34
That was precisely what the travelling party swiftly delivered after the restart, needing just 10 minutes for Costa to link up with David Silva in order to convert the opener and ease any lingering pressure.
The Chelsea striker didn't have a part to play at Euro 2016, but he outlined his importance to the squad with a fine finish thanks to Silva's unselfish play, as shown by Sky Football:
Sky Football ⚽️ @SkyFootball
Spain lead 2-0 against Albania! Diego Costa opened the scoring. Watch on Sky Sports 3 HD or https://t.co/6o73Y4SBob https://t.co/AZrcIeJrxN2016-10-9 20:18:12
Vitolo was sacrificed in order for Manchester City star Nolito to make his impact from the bench, and Lopetegui's manoeuvre was almost immediately vindicated.
While Costa's goal required teamwork and synchronicity, Nolito's goal just eight minutes after the breakthrough was all about individual work. Goal's Ben Hayward couldn't help but notice the initiative:
Ben Hayward @bghayward
That's better from Spain as Nolito makes it 2-0. Good link-up play, beat a defender and fine finish. Had only been on a couple of minutes.2016-10-9 20:09:14
Sunday's victory was close to a cakewalk for the remaining 30 minutes, with Spain left to go about their devices and defend a two-goal lead without much of a murmur from their hosts.
Lopetegui's side ultimately accounted for more than 70 percent of possession, according to FlashScores, although their manager will be hoping to see an improvement in shot conversion moving forward in qualification.
A long month now rests between both teams and their next 2018 World Cup qualifying fixture, with Spain hosting Macedonia on November 12 and Albania preparing to welcome Israel to Shkoder on the same day.
Lopetegui's side are yet to be beaten on their road to the 2018 World Cup, and Sunday's win marked another big moment in their run to Russia after they reclaimed the Group G lead as their own.
A win in Shkoder meant Lopetegui remained unbeaten as Spain manager since taking over from Vicente del Bosque, even if the team did need to be patient in finding their breakthrough on Sunday.
Lopetegui gave a jubilant reaction to the result via his official Twitter account following Sunday's result:
Julen Lopetegui @julenlopetegui
Important win in a complete match of the team. Proud of the attitude and conscious that there is a very long way to go. @FIFAWorldCup #WCQ https://t.co/5Zg4nCCQG02016-10-9 21:39:07
Speaking to Spanish broadcaster TVE after the match (h/t Marca), goalscorer Nolito gave a little more insight as to what the fixture was like for those on the pitch:
With 11 men sitting deep, it's not at all easy, but we were up to the task and the victory is good for us. Albania has a good team and their players understand their game.
A lot of teams will shut up shop against us, but we have to take them on with our philosophy.
Commenting on the knee injury sustained by team-mate Ramos, Nolito added: "The pitch wasn't the best. Ramos' injury is a shame, and I hope it will be as minor as possible."