They needed a little help but at last the cork came out and the cava flowed, carrying Spain through to the next round and maybe beyond. After two draws and a single goal had left them on the edge of elimination and pessimism took hold, Luis Enrique promised that once the bottle was finally opened, the goals would come and the best version of the Selección be seen. On a hot afternoon in Seville in which an early penalty miss might have sunk them but almost everything went right thereafter, that was almost exactly what happened.
Spain shone here, with Pablo Sarabia particularly impressing on his first start, and where once there had been whistles there was instead a Mexican wave and songs of celebration – the perfect send-off as the national team, qualifying in second place, set off for Copenhagen and a meeting with Croatia.
They can do so with renewed confidence too, after a superb display in which they put five past a poor Slovakia side who harboured hopes of progress themselves. Well, three: two were own-goals on an afternoon of gifts. As it turned out, Spain didn’t even need to accept the first of those after just nine minutes. If that might have provoked fatalism, it ended in fiesta.
Spain were handed the opportunity to open the scoring when the referee, Björn Kuipers, was called to the VAR screen after just nine minutes. Jakub Hromada had tried to hack the ball clear and Koke had fouled him, or so the referee initially thought. On second viewing though the defender was revealed to have succeeded only in clearing Koke, clumsily treading on the ball as he followed through.
Álvaro Morata was on the spot, literally and metaphorically. He knew it, too. He did not wear the look a man who would score; he did not take the penalty of a man who would, either. The ball went to the right of Martin Dubravka, who dived to push it away, the fifth spot-kick in a row Spain had failed to score – and from four different players.
If fatalism might have taken hold, Spain needn’t have worried: there were greater gifts to come. Sergio Busquets stepped up and led the Selección as they dominated, a clarity and fluidity about them not seen before. There was movement either side of him, an intensity about them, with Pablo Sarabia and César Azpilicueta adding something. There was also, to be frank, a team in front of him having a terrible time of it.
It was not that Slovakia hadn’t mustered a shot by half time; it was that they haven’t even been in a position to think about mustering up a shot. And nor was that the only problem they had. Unable to keep the ball, unable to stop Spain progressing, unable to put a foot in, or protect their area – just unable, full stop – they gave the ball away constantly, something about the clumsy hack that gave away the penalty proving prescient. That Spain pressed high was part of it, but this was about culpability as well as quality.
Spain kept coming. A gorgeous clipped pass from Pedri found Sarabia but from five yards out he could not sweep the volley into the net, missing the ball entirely. A minute later, Azpilicueta bent another in-swinging cross over the Slovakia defence to more or less the same place. Pedri, leaping, couldn’t reach it with an outstretched leg. From the edge of the area, Morata’s shot was punched away by Dubravka. Then Sarabia smashed a shot against the bar. They still couldn’t score, but Slovakia would do so for them.
They didn’t have to wait long, either. Just long enough for that shot to come down, in fact. The ball went high into the air. When it dropped by the bar Dubravka jumped and, like a volleyball player at the net, inexplicably slapped it down into his own goal.
Spain had broken through; Slovakia’s keeper had been broken, another gift seeing Spain double the lead just before half time. Again, Slovakia gave the ball away. Again, Spain pressed high to take advantage. Pedri dinked the pass, Dubravka followed Gerard Moreno too far from his line and the striker turned and clipped it over him to Aymeric Laporte, who headed in his first international goal from inside the six-yard box.
It took until the 54th minute for Slovakia to create anything resembling a chance when substitute Michal Duris was released over the top, albeit into a wide position from which he could only scuff his shot. If that was a bit too easy from Spain’s perspective, within a minute they had scored a third, Pedri and Alba combining neatly to set up Sarabia.
There was more. A clever short-corner routine had Pedri releasing the superb Sarabia and he pulled it back perfectly from the touchline. Ferran Torres finished with a backheel – and his first touch of the game. He had been on the pitch less than a minute. It had worked so well that they did it again. Another corner, another substitute on the pitch less than a minute, and they had their fifth. Pau Torres had the header although the goal was credited to Juraj Kucka. For Slovakia, it had been that kind of day; for Spain, it was a release. A rebirth, too.