Uncertain Spain Head Into Knockout Rounds Surrounded With Mixed Feelings

La Roja have been under immense pressure ever since Euro 2020 began. Spain had the advantage of playing at home for their three group games but that quickly turned into a negative; they were playing staid football on a sub-par pitch to an expectant crowd. La Cartuja is the third-best stadium in Seville after the Sánchez-Pizjuán and the Benito Villamarín, and Luis Enrique had a talented squad at his disposal but one missing the genuine superstars of the previous two decades.

Spain drew the first game, with Sweden, 0-0, with Alvaro Morata missing several gilt-edged chances. They also drew the second, with Poland, 1-1, Morata managing to get his name on the scoresheet but failing to convince.

How far Spain can go is anyone’s guess; with bookies like BetMGM TN seeing mixed reactions to their performances so far.

The knives were out for Luis Enrique and La Roja in the lead-up to their third and decisive group game, against Slovakia. Spain had to win to be sure of their place in the last 16.

Luis Enrique said pre-match that Spain were a bottle of canva about to be uncorked, and his bold prediction proved correct. Slovakia served up two own goals, but Spain hit three through Aymeric Laporte, Pablo Sarabia and Ferran Torres, winning 5-0. Luis Enrique made four changes that improved the side; Eric García came in at centre-back, discarding the two-man left-footed partnership that had been in place, César Azpilicueta came in at right-back and Sarabia justified his inclusion in the front three with a goal.

But the biggest difference was made by the re-introduction of Sergio Busquets into the midfield. The Catalan, who had been self-isolating after testing positive for covid-19, replaced Rodri as the sitting midfielder and was outstanding. His defensive work and progressive play is well-known, but where he really made a difference was his character. Busquets was on the referee from the first whistle, and was clearly in charge of La Roja on the pitch. Where there was an absence of leadership, there was now a main man.

Koke played to his right, while Pedri played to his left in a three-man midfield that flourished. Pedri, especially, relished the presence of his Barcelona team-mate. The two are at opposite ends of their career, and in many ways appear to be almost father and son. Busquets is 32 and has spent his entire senior career at Barcelona, winning the lot with club and country. Pedri is just 18, and joined Barcelona last summer from Las Palmas.

Busquets has been written-off by many while Pedri has been hyped-up by many, but both delivered in a big way against Slovakia and look to be two of Spain’s most important players heading into their last 16 tie with Croatia in Copenhagen this Monday. Pedri, in particular, has been the best young player in the tournament. Much has been made of his statistical contribution – pre-assists, passing completion percentage – but he’s also excelled in the quiet moments. Little pirouettes, flicks here and there. He does err, but it never affects him. Cold-blooded and nerveless, at 18.

If they can beat Croatia they’re scheduled to take on France, should they beat Switzerland, in the quarter-final; not an easy task. One’s tempted to wonder what would have been had Ansu Fati not been injured playing for Barcelona against Real Betis last November; he would have offered Luis Enrique a dynamism and pace that he sorely lacks in the final third. Spaniards will hope that Ansu, alongside Pedri, epitomises their future; fearless, exciting and daring. But for now, their focus is on beating Croatia.