Luis Enrique hailed Spain sensation Pedri, comparing the teenager to Barcelona and La Roja great Andres Iniesta following Tuesday's Euro 2020 semi-final loss to Italy.

Italy booked their place in the final with a 4-2 penalty shoot-out victory over Spain after the enthralling showdown finished 1-1 at Wembley.

Despite Spain's frustrating outing after substitute Alvaro Morata cancelled out Federico Chiesa's opener, it was a memorable campaign for 18-year-old star Pedri.

Pedri became the first European player in major tournament history (World Cup and Euros) to start as many as six such matches at the age of 18 or below and Luis Enrique lavished the Barcelona midfielder in praise.

"Well I think no 18-year-old has done what Pedri has done in any major competition, whether it's the Euros, the World Cup or the Olympics," Luis Enrique told reporters.

"His performances, the way he reads the game, the way he finds space, his quality, his personality, I've never seen anything like that, not even Andres Iniesta.

"It's absolutely impossible to explain."

Luis Enrique also lauded attacker Dani Olmo, adding: "[He] was absolutely fantastic today, he's a very intelligent player with plenty of quality. He is good between the lines, he picks up the ball well.

"We wanted to starve [Giorgio] Chiellini and [Leonardo] Bonucci of that focal point and I think we did that really well. We wanted to prevent them from doing what they did with [Romelu] Lukaku so it was about creating that four versus three in that area of the pitch. That meant it was going to be difficult for them to take the ball from us.

"We created a lot of chances and I think we were just missing that final step in terms of taking some of our chances. It's very difficult to get the ball off a player like Dani Olmo so I think the players implemented our tactics to perfection. Olmo is a very important player for us because he can play in a range of different situations. He can score goals and he's a very complete footballer."

 

Left out of the starting line-up for the first time this tournament, Morata made an impact from the bench by equalising with 10 minutes remaining in normal time following Chiesa's 60th-minute opener.

Neither side could find a way through in the additional period in what was a repeat of the 2012 final, which Spain won 4-0 for their third European title, though it was Italy who prevailed in Tuesday's enthralling clash.

Morata's penalty was saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma, paving the way for Jorginho to convert the winning spot-kick, as Italy extended their unbeaten run to 33 games to set up a clash with either England or Denmark in Sunday's final at the same ground. 

Embattled forward Morata has now scored more goals at the European Championships than any other Spain player (six), overtaking Fernando Torres' five goals. In fact, Morata became the first ever Spain player to score for club and country at Wembley.

Morata is also in rarefied company as the second player to scored three or more times in multiple Euros after Cristiano Ronaldo, who has done so on three occasions.

"He has an abductor problem. It really says a lot about his personality that despite that he wanted to take a penalty. He's gone through some tough times during this tournament but he was brilliant," said Luis Enrique.

"He really created a lot of uncertainty in the Italian ranks, he scored of course, so he was excellent. I haven't seen him because he's had to go to doping control. I was able to see Jordi Alba, but I'll go and see him now.

After Spain failed to progress from a semi-final at a major tournament (World Cup and Euros) for the first time in their history, Luis Enrique said: "I'd say that it would be an A- for my players, it would be an A+ had we won. We've been speaking about how we want to play at the Euros for many months.

"The players really bought into that and they did a wonderful job of it. I have no complaints. Really, I just want to congratulate my players. We've shown that we are a team and that we are going to continue doing that. Now it's important for us to rest while the rest of the teams compete and we'll see each other again at future training camps."

Alvaro Morata has been dropped to the bench for Spain's Euro 2020 semi-final against Italy at Wembley.

The 28-year-old Juventus striker had started all five of Spain's matches at the tournament, scoring twice – including a vital extra-time strike in the dramatic 5-3 win over Croatia in the round of 16.

But Morata has also endured a tough time in front of goal, missing a penalty during the 5-0 rout of Slovakia.

Of his 16 non-penalty attempts in the tournament, seven have been on target and he is under-performing an expected goals (xG) tally of 3.16, as per Opta.

Luis Enrique has staunchly defended the former Atletico and Real Madrid player but substituted him after 54 minutes of the quarter-final against Switzerland.

Gerard Moreno was his replacement in St Petersburg but the Villareal striker went on to endure a similarly wasteful outing and Luis Enrique has opted for a mobile front three without a specialist centre-forward, with Dani Olmo and Mikel Oyarzabal starting alongside Ferran Torres.

That means Pablo Sarabia misses out, alongside Gerard's club team-mate Pau Torres, who is replaced at centre-back by Eric Garcia.

Italy boss Roberto Mancini makes the one expected change to the XI that beat Belgium, with Chelsea left-back Emerson coming in for Leonardo Spinazzola, whose magnificent tournament was cut short by a ruptured Achilles.

This is the fourth consecutive European Championship meeting between Italy and Spain, with the latter winning a quarter-final penalty shoot-out in 2008 before swaggering to a dominant 4-0 final win at Euro 2012.

Italy, under Antonio Conte, gained a measure of revenge with a 2-0 last-16 triumph in Paris at Euro 2016.

Alvaro Morata may not have been prolific in terms of goals at Euro 2020 but his selfless work for the team is vital for Spain, according to Gaizka Mendieta.

Striker Morata has scored twice to help Luis Enrique's side reach the semi-finals of the tournament, though his failure to capitalise on the opportunities that have come his way has led to criticism.

Indeed, the 28-year-old has been booed by his own fans both before and during the European Championship, while his family have been targeted for abuse too.

Yet former Spain international Mendieta feels Morata's team-mates appreciate all he does for the cause, even if his finishing has let him down at times. From 15 attempts, he has a shot conversion rate of 13.33 per cent.

An expected goals total of 3.95 highlights a shortcoming for the former Chelsea and Real Madrid player in front of goal, yet he has started every game ahead of the last-four clash with Italy at Wembley on Tuesday.

Gerard Moreno – an alternative option to lead the line in place of Morata – has yet to score at the European Championship from 15 shots, while Dani Olmo has been unsuccessful with all of his 16 attempts. The problem for La Roja in general has been taking chances, rather than creating them.

"I think people are being very critical," Mendieta told Stats Perform. "I believe Morata is a player who gives a lot to the team in terms of work, mobility, keeping the ball and creating spaces for midfielders and wingers like Olmo, [Ferran] Torres or even Moreno.

"I think he is doing a great job and that's one of the main reasons he is in the team. Of course, he is a striker and you expect goals from him and unfortunately it is where he has been unlucky.

"He hasn't finished the chances he had and that's what has made noise.

"Beyond this, I think the team is grateful for his work. He is the first one realising he should improve scoring and creating chances and I am sure he is working on it.

"Those critics are understandable, but his efforts are respected."

 

Luis Enrique has been unequivocal in his support of Morata, describing the abuse directed at the player and his family as a "serious crime" as he called for the authorities to take action.

The Spain boss has steered the team through choppy waters at Euro 2020. Having opened the campaign with two dour draws, the 2012 winners found their scoring touch in a 5-0 thrashing of Slovakia to qualify behind Sweden from Group E.

A wild last-16 clash with Croatia eventually went Spain's way after extra time, while a penalty shoot-out was required to see off Switzerland in the quarter-finals.

Mendieta, however, feels Luis Enrique has created an environment where his players are able to respond to any match situation, good or bad.

"He gives value to the player in order to make him part of the plan," he said of the former Barcelona head coach.

"I think that is reflected on the pitch; a common idea but at the same time it is the player who needs to find solutions. The coach cannot do that for them on the pitch.

"That's why I think the Spain team had a great reaction in tough times in some games. Especially in the group stage, in the last game. They are a team with a great character, just like Luis Enrique himself."

Spain head coach Luis Enrique hailed the impact of newcomer Aymeric Laporte after his controversial allegiance switch ahead of Euro 2020.

Laporte is the only Spain defender to play every game at Euro 2020 and looms as a key figure in Tuesday's semi-final against Italy in London.

The France-born Manchester City centre-back only made his international debut last month after being granted Spanish nationality in May.

Laporte, who moved to Spain as a 16-year-old and came through the Athletic Bilbao system, had been capped at every under-age level by France and called up twice for the senior team in 2019 but never debuted for Les Bleus.

Luis Enrique and the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) pursued Laporte over the past three years, despite the player claiming it was "out of the question", eventually winning him over ahead of Euro 2020.

"As soon as he was able to play with us he began to do a huge amount for us," Luis Enrique said during Monday's news conference. "He's a top defender, both in the attacking and defensive phases.

"We obviously need our defenders to have composure in order to bring the ball out and pick out that free man in midfield.

"He is strong in the air, he can play with both feet, he is physically strong, he's quick, he's strong, as I've said, he is good at playing on the front foot, he is good with how he covers.

"He's a top defender and we are delighted that Aymeric has decided to play for Spain."

Laporte's inclusion in Spain's European Championship squad has arguably vindicated Luis Enrique's decision to exclude veteran captain Sergio Ramos.

Luis Enrique has a selection headache with Pablo Sarabia unlikely to be fit to face Italy due to a muscle injury, having started in the quarter-final penalty shoot-out win over Switzerland.

RB Leipzig's Dani Olmo replaced Sarabia at half-time against Switzerland and is a likely preferred option.

"They are all fit except Sarabia," Luis Enrique said. "Physically they are well and tiredness ends 45 minutes after finishing the quarter final game."

Luis Enrique's Spain bossed possession (73 per cent) against Switzerland but relied on penalties to advance to the last four, despite having 28 shots to eight.

Spain have reached the semi-finals of the European Championship for the third time in the past four editions of the competition (failing to do so in 2016). They have gone on to win the Euros on each of the past two occasions they have reached the final four – in 2008 and 2012.

After losing each of their first four matches at Wembley between 1955 and 1968, Spain have only suffered one defeat in their past five games there (W2 D2). However, they were knocked out of the Euros in 1996 at Wembley, losing to hosts England on penalties.

Luis Enrique was wary of Italy's desire for possession too, in a looming clash of styles.

"I think that's one of the main questions really," he said. "We are leaders in terms of possession stats but they are also a side that can use the ball and enjoy their football with the ball.

"I guess that's the first battle to win. I think that they are very good without the ball as well. They've shown that at times during the championship, but they are far more comfortable with the ball.

"Our objectives are clear. We need the ball, we want to have it. If we have to play a different game we'll adapt but of course we'd prefer to have possession."

Italy and Spain are preparing to face one another for the 10th time at a major tournament, but Luis Enrique believes this is an Azzurri side like never before.

The two old rivals have been paired again in the semi-finals at Euro 2020, making this the most common fixture at the European Championship and World Cup combined.

This will be the seventh Euros clash, with the sides meeting at least once in four consecutive championships.

Spain eliminated Italy in 2008 and beat them in the final in 2012 but were toppled by the Azzurri four years later and now face a rejuvenated Roberto Mancini outfit.

"This Italy side isn't, perhaps, like the ones of years gone by – one that would sit back and wait to see what happened," Spain coach Luis Enrique said.

"This is an Italy side with great players who aim to have a lot of possession. This will be the first battle in the game: who dominates possession?

"I don't think both of us can dominate, so it'll be interesting to see who wins this tussle.

"Apart from having top players, Italy are a real team. They attack and defend as a unit, which is really similar to what we do.

"They also employ a high press, which it would be hard to imagine an Italian side from the past doing.

"Now they're strong in several ways of playing, meaning that the game will be really interesting. Both teams will have their moments."

Mancini, whose men are unbeaten in 32 and have won 13 in a row, was asked how Italy's Jorginho might match up against Sergio Busquets.

 

Among midfielders to have played 90 minutes or more at the tournament, Busquets ranks eighth for passes attempted per 90 (77.7) and Jorginho 10th (74.9).

"Certainly, they are among the best in their role," Mancini said.

"Busquets has been a fantastic player for many years. He has been around for longer, compared to Jorginho.

"Considering the way he is playing right now, however, Jorginho is certainly among the best, too."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Italy – Emerson

Leonardo Spinazzola has been one of the tournament's most impressive players at wing-back for Italy, creating seven chances from open play – including one assist – and having a championship-high six shot-ending carries. Emerson is likely to be the man asked to step in, having replaced Spinazzola against Belgium after he was taken off on a stretcher, and has big boots to fill.

Spain – Pedri

Busquets might have been the man at the centre of pre-match discussion, but Pedri has arguably been Spain's most impressive midfield performer at these finals. Against Switzerland, he created five chances and made five tackles. The Barcelona teenager has been involved in five more shot-ending sequences (35) than any other player at Euro 2020.

KEY OPTA FACTS

– Italy have only beaten Spain twice in their past 14 meetings in all competitions (D7 L5), a 2-1 friendly win in 2011 and, most recently, a 2-0 victory at Euro 2016 in the last 16, with goals from Giorgio Chiellini and Graziano Pelle.
– The Azzurri have reached their 12th semi-final at a major tournament (EUROs/World Cup), with only Germany (20) appearing at the final four stage more often among all European sides. They have progressed from nine of the previous 11 semi-final ties, including each of the past four – most recently in this competition in 2012 when they eventually lost in the final to Spain (4-0).
– Italy have won all five of their matches at Euro 2020, the only side of the remaining final four with a 100 per cent record to date. Only at the World Cup (Italia 90) have they won more games at a single major tournament (six), while the only European side to win each of their first six games at a major tournament was the Netherlands at the 2010 World Cup, when they suffered defeat to Spain in the final in South Africa.
– Spain have reached the semi-finals of the European Championships for the third time in the past four editions of the competition (failing to do so in 2016). Indeed, they have gone on to win the competition on each of the past two occasions they have reached the final four – in 2008 and 2012.
– After losing each of their first four matches at Wembley Stadium between 1955 and 1968, Spain have only suffered one defeat in their past five matches there (W2 D2). However, they were knocked out of the Euros in 1996 at Wembley, losing to hosts England on penalties.

Luis Enrique said it was a good thing Gerard Moreno missed a string of chances in Spain's victory against Switzerland rather than Alvaro Morata following the recent criticism aimed at the Juventus striker.

Three-time European champions Spain booked their place in the semi-finals of Euro 2020 on Friday with a dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over 10-man Switzerland.

La Roja, who needed extra time to overcome Croatia in the last 16, were pegged back by a Xherdan Shaqiri strike in St Petersburg after Denis Zakaria's own goal had put them in front.

Even after Remo Freuler's dismissal with 77 minutes played, Luis Enrique's men could not find a way through due to a mixture of profligacy and a number of Yann Sommer saves – a tournament-high 10 in total.

Gerard replaced Morata and endured a tough time of it, the Villarreal striker missing a number of good opportunities to win the tie for Spain before penalties were required.

He managed six shots, half of those on target, while his expected goals (xG) return of 3.3 for the tournament so far is the highest of any player yet to score at Euro 2020.

Morata revealed last week he and his family had been subjected to abuse by Spain fans, and Luis Enrique is glad the striker was not the recipient of any more criticism on Friday.

"Luckily it was Gerard Moreno who failed to take the chances. If Morata misses them, you impale him," the Spain head coach said after the quarter-final win.

"It's quite evident what Morata has experienced and what Gerard has experienced. They are both my players and I love them very much."

 

Spain are the sixth team to progress from two separate knockout games of a single European Championship tournament that went to extra time or beyond, all five previous sides going on to lift the trophy.

They were on the back foot when Sergio Busquets missed the first spot-kick, but Fabian Schar, Manuel Akanji and Ruben Vargas all failed to find the net for Switzerland.

Asked if he felt nervous watching the shoot-out, Luis Enrique said: "It was a tranquil moment for me because we'd already worked on everything. Nothing else could be done.

"Win or lose on penalties, the team would have done excellently for my judgement. For how they've handled this, how they've played, how they've represented Spain.

"We are so proud. It'd be ridiculous to think that we, or any of the semi-finalists, would settle for just getting that far now – all of us want to get to the final and win.

"I've said from the outset that we are one of the seven or eight teams which, no exaggeration, could win this trophy – now we're one of four."

Switzerland knocked out competition favourites France on penalties in the last round following an incredible 3-3 draw, but they ultimately could not do likewise against Spain.

It is the fourth time the Swiss have been eliminated from a major tournament at the last-eight stage, with each of those previous occasions coming in the World Cup.

"I have mixed feelings," said head coach Vladimir Petkovic after the game. "I have pride – we can all be so proud. We leave here with our heads held high. 

"On the other hand, we were so close to the semi-final, and that doesn't happen often. I have more positive than negative feelings.

"Congratulations to Spain. They tried everything and in the end won on penalties. I am very proud of my team, and all the players.

"My players were the heroes of the night. We would have deserved to go to the semi-final."

Luis Enrique pledged there will be no complacency from his Spain side as La Roja prepare to take on Switzerland in the quarter-finals of Euro 2020.

While Spain needed extra-time to see off a resurgent Croatia 5-3 in the last 16, Switzerland stunned world champions France 5-4 on penalties after a dramatic 3-3 draw in Bucharest.

Both of those ties took place on Monday, albeit Switzerland's game edged into Tuesday local time, and the teams now face a quick turnaround for Friday's contest in Saint Petersburg.

This is the first meeting between Switzerland and Spain at the European Championship.

Their three previous meetings in a major tournament came in the 1966, 1994 and 2010 World Cups, with La Roja winning the first two and Switzerland triumphing last time out – albeit Spain went on to win the trophy despite that group-stage defeat.

However, that defeat in South Africa is Spain's only loss to Switzerland in 22 meetings in all competitions.

The teams met in October and November last year, in the Nations League group stage, with Spain winning 1-0 at home before drawing 1-1 on the road, and Luis Enrique is under no illusions as to the scale of test his team will have to pass if they are to face either Belgium or Italy in the last four.

"The reality is Switzerland have got through and nothing else matters," Spain's head coach told a news conference.

"The good thing for us is that both teams know each other very well. We competed recently in the Nations League.

"They're going to be a very tough team to face and I think for the spectator there might not be some big names, but they're a great group of players.

"They're a match for us in terms of the way they press, the way they attack, so it's going to be very difficult for us."

Spain are the first team in European Championship history to score five or more goals in consecutive games, having defeated Slovakia 5-0 in their final group match before edging Croatia in a thriller.

They had not scored more than four goals in any of their first 42 matches in the competition, though Switzerland have netted three times in each of their last two games, having never scored more than twice in any of their first 15 matches at the Euros.

"We need to be hungry again, greedy, to make it to the next round," Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic, who will be shorn of the suspended Granit Xhaka, told reporters.

"From this point on I can't say I'm satisfied and happy that we made it so far because, for me, the next step is always the most important.

"We want to succeed, make it to the next round. We know that we have to play against one of the strongest teams, Spain, one of the favourites, but we will try to take our chance and make it to the next round."

Luis Enrique's free-scoring Spain will look to avoid the same fate as France when they take on European Championship quarter-final debutants Switzerland.

Switzerland pulled off one of the tournament's all-time greatest shocks by eliminating competition favourites France on penalties in the last 16 after a thrilling 3-3 draw.

La Roja were also involved in a game that saw six goals inside an eventful 90 minutes, before going on to beat Croatia 5-3 in extra time in another Euros classic.

In doing so, Spain became the first side in European Championship history to score five or more goals in successive games, having seen off Slovakia 5-0 in their final group match.

Ahead of Friday's showdown with Switzerland, Luis Enrique has vowed to stick to an attacking style of play.

"I'm ready for games like the one against Croatia if we have another – but I'm not sure if my family or the fans feel the same," he said.

"We won't play long ball, defensive football even if playing the way we do brings wild matches. We only defend by trying to own the ball and play."

Switzerland have reached the last eight of the World Cup on three occasions, but this is the furthest they have ever made it at a European Championship.

They have never previously made it to the semi-finals of a tournament but, buoyed by their famous triumph against France, Vladimir Petkovic's players have a chance to change that.

"The game against France was almost too emotional. All my players gave 120 per cent," said Petkovic, who will be without suspended skipper Granit Xhaka.

"It was probably one of my team's best games ever. We will now need a similar performance against Spain in the quarter-finals."

Spain have lost just one of their 22 meetings with Switzerland in all competitions (W16 D5), with that solitary defeat coming in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

 


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Switzerland - Haris Seferovic

Benfica striker Seferovic scored just one goal in his first 13 major tournament appearances for Switzerland, but he has now netted three in his last two appearances at Euro 2020.

That includes a couple of well-taken goals in the win against France, and he is now out to become the second Swiss player – after Josef Hugi at the 1954 World Cup – to score in three successive appearances in a single tournament.

Spain - Ferran Torres

Manchester City attacker Torres was recalled to Spain's starting line-up for the Croatia match after scoring from the bench in the resounding win against Slovakia.

He made the most of his opportunity with another goal and an assist in the last 16, making it eight goal involvements – seven goals and one assist – in his last nine international appearances.


KEY OPTA FACTS

- This is the first clash between Switzerland and Spain at the Euros. Their three previous meetings in a major tournament came in the 1966, 1994 and 2010 World Cups, with Spain winning the first two and Switzerland triumphing last time out.

- Spain have scored five-plus goals in consecutive European Championship games. They had not scored more than four goals in any of their first 42 matches in the competition.

- Switzerland have scored three times in each of their past two Euros matches, having never scored more than twice in any of their first 15 in the competition. They previously scored three-plus goals in three straight matches in all competitions in October 2017.

- Having scored with just 8.5 per cent of their shots in the group stages (4/47), Switzerland converted 25 per cent of their attempts in the last-16 meeting with France (3/12).

- Spain are averaging 73.4 per cent possession and have a passing accuracy of 89.5 per cent at Euro 2020 so far. Both figures are their highest on record in a single European Championship (since 1980).

Luis Enrique believes any national team in the world would gladly have Alvaro Morata in their line-up after helping Spain reach the Euro 2020 quarter-finals.

Spain forward Morata put patchy form in front of goal behind him to fire a brilliant extra-time strike and re-establish La Roja's lead in Copenhagen on Monday, en route to a thrilling 5-3 last-16 win over Croatia.

Before the match, Luis Enrique branded abuse and threats directed towards Morata and his family as "criminal" and urged the police to take action.

After a breathless encounter at Parken Stadium, which Spain led 3-1 with five minutes of normal time remaining, the Spain head coach once again offered unwavering backing to his centre-forward.

"I don't think there's a national team coach anywhere in the world who wouldn't value Morata and what he does for the team" he said, after the 28-year-old completed 84 per cent of his passes in the opposition half and created two chances for team-mates.

"He's dominant aerially, he's strong and he gets us goals. We really need to appreciate having a striker like him."

 

Spain fell behind in the first half when goalkeeper Unai Simon let a 40-yard backpass from Pedri skip past him and into the net.

The Athletic Bilbao keeper made amends early in extra time with a stunning close-range save from Andrej Kramaric when the score was 3-3.

"Unai gave a lesson to kids everywhere," Luis Enrique said.

"Football is made up of errors and his reaction, making great saves, was an example of why we have such confidence in him."

The former Barcelona boss added: "I've lived through really intense matches as a player and manager but this one genuinely had a bit of everything."

After becoming the first team to score five goals in back-to-back games in European Championship history, Spain will face Switzerland in the quarter-finals.

Vladimir Petkovic's side emulated Croatia's feat by launching a late comeback to draw 3-3 with France before beating the world champions on penalties as Yann Sommer saved decisively from Kylian Mbappe in the shoot-out.

When Dani Olmo's right-footed cross curled through the fervent Copenhagen evening, it only had one man's name on it.

The name of a striker who has plied his trade at the top of European football for the duration of his career, the name of a player chosen to lead the line for one of the continent's great footballing heavyweights.

But also the name of a 28-year-old man with a wife and a young family, whose struggles at Euro 2020 have provoked unforgivable threats from poisonous throats and wicked fingers.

"I would like people to put themselves in my shoes and think what it's like to get threats towards my family, people saying: 'I hope your children die'," Alvaro Morata told Cadena Cope this week, after scoring once but missing a catalogue of chances during the group stage.

"I've had to leave my phone outside my room. My wife and children have come to the stadium in Seville with Morata on the back of their shirts and people have been shouting at them. 

"It's complicated. I understand people booing me for missing chances but there's a limit."

Olmo, who himself slammed Morata's abusers for "going beyond" had put his team-mate in the spotlight once more. It was a perfect cross at odds with the frenzied, haywire nonsense that had gone before.

But then, that's Spain at major tournaments nowadays. It's complicated.

                       ********************

Since winning Euros 2008 and 2012 either side of the 2010 World Cup, Spain were without a win in major tournament knockout games ahead of Monday's last-16 encounter with Croatia at Parken Stadium.

At the 2014 World Cup, they were dumped out at the group stage, at Euro 2016 they were comprehensively outplayed by Antonio Conte's Italy and the hosts bored them to a penalty shoot-out loss at Russia 2018.

But this time it would be different, right?

In Luis Enrique, they have a high-class coach with a point to prove. They put collective goalscoring demons behind them by shellacking Slovakia 5-0 and began against Croatia with authoritative dominance.

Pedri, the youngest player to start a European Championship knockout game at 18 years and 215 days, had everyone dancing to his tune. A stunning throughball released Koke, who should have scored. Morata, naturally, also should have scored but misjudged a header.

It seemed a matter of time before Spain scored with Pedri heavily involved. The Barcelona youngster pinging a 40-yard backpass beyond a haphazard attempt at control from goalkeeper Unai Simon – giving Croatia the lead before they had enjoyed either a shot or a touch inside the opposition penalty area – was not in anyone's script, however.

                       ********************

Scripts, match reports and strands of hair have long since been ripped apart by the time Morata smoothly controlled Olmo's centre with his right foot.

It was time to make his impression upon a contest of clinical finishing and frazzled brains.

"The situation is so serious that it must be put in the hands of the police because it is a serious crime," Luis Enrique rightly said when addressing the media this week.

"Insulting Morata's relatives is a crime and I hope it is corrected outright."

In the sporting sense, he had seen his team fall victim to an improbable heist and needed the centre-forward he trusts above all others.

Around 50 minutes earlier, Morata could look on with satisfaction and leave the finishing to right-back Cesar Azpilicueta, who powered home Ferran Torres' 57th-minute cross.

The effervescent Pablo Sarabia equalised before half-time and Torres getting in on the act showed Spain have enough firepower to absorb Morata's more erratic moments and enjoy his slick, intelligent link play. He created two openings for team-mates and completed 84 per cent of his passes deep in Croatian territory.

Luka Modric, the old master so outplayed by Pedri, was goaded into penning the sting in the tail as he shuffled towards the Spain six-yard box to set up substitute Mislav Orsic.

Right then, it felt as if Luis Enrique might have erred in taking off Sarabia, Torres and Koke to rest their legs for the quarters, not to mention disrupting Aymeric Laporte and Eric Garcia's central defensive pairing by throwing on Pau Torres for the latter.

When Mario Pasalic converted Orsic's brilliant delivery from deep to spark unbridled bedlam, we had our answer.

                       ********************

Morata's perfect first touch granted him time in a game where no one seemed to have any, despite an additional 30 minute being bolted on.

Orsic blazed over at the start of extra time with Spain rocking, while Andrej Kramaric drew a magnificent save from Simon when the score was 3-3.

In terms of redemptive moments, that was only the supporting act.

Where he has snatched at changes so often of late, Morata found time to breath and let the ball drop enough for him to drive his left boot brutally through.

It was in from the moment he connected. Olmo's fellow sub Mikel Oyarzabal concluded a 5-3 win, making Spain the first team to score five goals in consecutive European Championship matches.

That's an awful lot to celebrate for some who have mercilessly tormented their hero of the hour and his loved ones. They don't deserve Alvaro Morata, and the endurance and perseverance that mean one of this tournament's greatest ever games belongs to him.

Spain boss Luis Enrique has described the abuse received by Alvaro Morata as a "crime" and says it should be a matter for the police. 

Morata has been the focus of attention since being jeered by his own fans during a pre-Euro 2020 friendly with Portugal after missing several opportunities.

He was then criticised for his displays in Spain's 0-0 draw with Sweden in their Group E opener and 1-1 draw with Poland, a game in which he scored but missed more chances.

The Juventus striker, whose loan from Atletico Madrid was extended for another season last week, then missed a penalty in Wednesday's 5-0 win against Slovakia, which saw Spain progress from their group in second place.

Morata revealed in an interview that he has received vicious messages on social media during the tournament, while his wife and children have also been targeted in public. 

Luis Enrique has repeatedly leapt to the defence of Morata for his performances and is expected to stick with the 28-year-old for the last-16 tie with Croatia on Monday. 

Speaking at a media conference, the Spain boss said: "The situation is so serious that it must be put in the hands of the police because it is a serious crime. 

"Insulting Morata's relatives is a crime and I hope it is corrected outright."

 

Spain will hope to end a run of falling at the first hurdle in the knockouts of a major tournament when they face Croatia.

After winning Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, La Roja were eliminated at this stage of both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup.

Despite that, Luis Enrique said his side have no doubts about their ability to get past Croatia. 

"I have had the same confidence since the start of the Championship," he added.

"No team has surprised us. I thought we were going to be first in the group, but football is the result. But in terms of morale and dedication, we are at the max.

"We have not been there since 2012, but against Slovakia we had to win and now we have another final. I don't know if we are going to pass, but my team has no doubts. We are going to try to minimise the threat of the rival."

The match will be Croatia and Spain's third major tournament meeting, with both previous such clashes coming in European Championship group stages. Both sides won once each: Spain in 2012 and Croatia in 2016.

Spain head coach Luis Enrique believes critics of his side could have nothing to complain about after their 5-0 rout of Slovakia sealed their spot in the Euro 2020 last 16.

Luis Enrique's Spain had been subject to boos from their fans along with media criticism following 0-0 and 1-1 draws with Sweden and Poland respectively in their opening two Euro 2020 games, both in Seville.

A lot of the attention has centred on forward Alvaro Morata, who missed an early penalty against Slovakia, but Luis Enrique's side turned around those woes with an emphatic display, securing the biggest win of Euro 2020 so far.

The victory also equalled the largest margin of victory in a game at the European Championships, Spain becoming the fifth different side to win by five goals in the tournament (after France and Denmark in 1984, the Netherlands in 2000 and Sweden in 2004).

Aymeric Laporte, Pablo Sarabia and Ferran Torres all netted along with two own goals as Spain secured second spot behind Sweden in Group E, setting up a last-16 date with Croatia.

"I believe people can have plenty of complaints, but I really don't think there can be any criticisms of today," Luis Enrique told his post-game news conference.

"We will prepare for the last-16 with plenty of confidence and we're desperate for Monday to come around soon."

He added: "It is a relief. Not just for me, but in terms of what it means with our ability to achieve a convincing result with our style."

The former Barcelona boss added that they would "pop a bottle of Cava" to celebrate their progress but wanted more in the knockout stage, with his lofty expectations unchanged.

"We will go step by step. I've spoken about what I believe we can achieve and the expectations we have as a national team and I haven't changed my opinion," Luis Enrique said.

"We have certainly popped that bottle of Cava, therefore we are delighted, we are pleased the fans and players have had a good time.

"Now it's time for us to get another bottle of Cava and see if we can pop that too."

Spain will take on Croatia in Copenhagen on Monday, with the teams last meeting twice in 2018 via the Nations League.

Croatia won 3-2 in Zagreb, while Spain thrashed the 2018 World Cup finalists 6-0 in Elche in those encounters.

"They are a top team with players we know well, we played in the Nations League two years ago as well," Luis Enrique said.

"It will be a tough match but when you get to last 16 you can't expect easy teams."

Luis Enrique accepted criticism ahead of Spain's decisive Group E clash with Slovakia, where another draw may not be enough.

Spain have drawn with Sweden and Poland so far at Euro 2020 and could follow Portugal in 2016 as the second ever team to be held in all three matches in a European Championship group stage.

Portugal went on to win that tournament, but Spain would not even be assured of third place in their pool and a place in the next round if results went against them elsewhere.

Worryingly for Luis Enrique, whose side missed a host of chances in their first two matches, a point apiece appears the most likely result.

Spain have drawn each of their past four major tournament matches – one shy of a record for European sides.

And a point would suit Slovakia, ensuring they advance for the third time in three major tournament appearances, after the World Cup in 2010 and Euro 2016.

Spain coach Luis Enrique described himself as "preoccupied with us meriting better results but not getting them".

"We've created enough chances to win both games," he added, yet the under-fire boss recognised he could not complain about scrutiny.

"We coaches fully understand the fact that we live by results, and what not meeting your objectives means," Luis Enrique said.

"I'm hoping that by the end of Wednesday we're not only in the knockouts but as group winners. Right now I'll accept the criticism."
 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Slovakia – Martin Dubravka

Goalkeeper Dubravka conceded the costly penalty when Slovakia lost their second match to Sweden, having earlier made a stunning save. That was one of just five stops so far at the tournament, though, while he has picked the ball out of his net twice. Spain may be wasteful, but that save rate may need to improve.

Spain – Gerard Moreno

Moreno will certainly hope to keen Dubravka busy – if he gets the opportunity. The forward missed a penalty against Poland (Spain's fifth miss from their past eight attempts at the Euros) and Luis Enrique hinted at potentially looking for a solution in attack. Moreno has been involved in more goals (nine) for Spain since his debut than any other player.
 

KEY OPTA FACTS

– Slovakia have won only one of their six meetings with Spain (D1 L4), a home victory in a European Championship qualifier back in October 2014 (2-1). This is their first encounter at a major tournament.
– Spain have won all three of their previous matches on home soil against Slovakia, scoring 11 goals and conceding two.
– Slovakia are unbeaten in their final group-stage game at both of their previous two major tournaments, winning 3-2 against Italy at the 2010 World Cup and drawing 0-0 with England at Euro 2016. They have progressed from the group stages at both previous tournaments.
– Including one as caretaker manager in 2018, Stefan Tarkovic has only lost two of his 11 matches in charge of Slovakia in all competitions (W4 D5 L2), with one of those defeats coming last time out against Sweden; Slovakia are yet to lose back-to-back games under him.
– Spain have drawn their last four major tournament matches (World Cup and Euros); among European nations, only Italy (five from 1980 to 1982) have ever had a longer run of successive such draws.

Luis Enrique confirmed under-fire Alvaro Morata will start Spain's Euro 2020 Group E clash against Poland on Saturday and insisted the striker is in a positive frame of mind.

Morata, whose loan at Juventus from Atletico Madrid was extended for another season this week, has been heavily criticised in recent days for his display in Spain's 0-0 draw with Sweden on Monday.

The 28-year-old squandered Spain's best chance when he fired wide with just Sweden goalkeeper Robin Olsen to beat – one of three off-target attempts before he was substituted in the 66th minute.

Morata, however, has netted three of Spain's four most recent European Championship goals and is his country's leading scorer since the 2016 tournament, with 16 in 32 appearances.

Luis Enrique has no worries over his form as Spain look to avoid opening a Euros tournament with no wins from their opening two matches for the first time since 1996.

"I have said that he and 10 others will play [against Poland] as an encouragement for him to find the greatest of trusts, not because he did not perform," the Spain head coach told a media conference.

"Morata does many important things in attack and defence and I am not going to give anything away.

"There is only one player who has scored more goals than Morata with 41 caps, only David Villa. For example, our great forwards like Raul or [Fernando] Torres had less than him with 41 games."

Asked how Morata's emotional state is, Luis Enrique responded: "It's very good. There are times when you talk to a player when non-verbal language tells you more and already in the game I saw it was perfect.

"Every week with Alvaro we have taught him things that I want him to improve, but this week I have not had to teach him anything. I like his smile at work and his attitude. I convey my trust in Alvaro and in everyone."

Gerard Moreno came off the bench against Sweden, with many Spain fans calling for the Villarreal striker to replace him up front from the start against Poland.

Luis Enrique, however, was keen for the focus to move away from who plays in the central striking role, insisting his side's goal threat should come from every area of the pitch.

"It is very odd to think that only the number nine of the national team has to score," the coach added.

"Everyone has the responsibility to score a goal just as in defence we all defend. We have called up the four forwards who scored the most goals in their championships throughout the season and the four of them understand each other perfectly."

Saturday's match in Seville will be the first meeting between Spain and Poland at a major tournament.

Spain have won eight of their 10 matches against Poland (D1 L1), with the sole Polish victory taking place over 40 years ago (November 1980), in a friendly played in Barcelona (2-1).

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