TOULOUSE, France (AP) — Gerard Pique finally broke down the Czech Republic’s stubborn defense in the final minutes, giving defending champion Spain a 1-0 victory Monday at the European Championship.
Pique ran behind the defenders and calmly headed the ball into the net after a well-placed cross by Andres Iniesta in the 87th minute.
”It was an incredible pass by Iniesta,” Pique said. ”It was very important to start with the three points. We played very well, we controlled the game but it seemed the ball didn’t want to go in.”
The two-time defending champions had created a series of scoring chances throughout the match at the Stadium de Toulouse. But they looked set to being denied victory by a combination of poor finishing and a superb performance from Czech Republic goalkeeper Petr Cech.
”Is not the first time we’ve had this kind of game, this kind of opponent,” said Iniesta, who was voted the best player of the match. ”There’s not a single way to break down these teams, you have to be patient, be calm, and keep going forward for as long as it takes.”
The Czechs had a chance to break the deadlock in the 65th but Cesc Fabregas saved Spain with a goal-line clearance after a header by Theodor Gebre Selassie.
The result left Spain and Croatia at the top of Group D with three points each. Croatia defeated Turkey 1-0 on Sunday.
”We took the initiative during the entire match. We dominated,” Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque said. ”Iniesta made a perfect pass and Pique was phenomenal.”
La Roja controlled possession and was on the attack most of the time but couldn’t break down the Czechs’ resistance until Pique’s late header.
”If you keep insisting with this intensity, the goal will come,” Spain defender Sergio Ramos said. ”We have to continue like this.”
The Czechs barely threatened Spain goalkeeper David De Gea until Gebre Selassie’s header. The team’s lone chance in the first half came when Tomas Necid’s shot drew a save by De Gea in injury time.
”If only we had a bit more luck,” Czech Republic coach Pavel Vrba said. ”We played at our max level and it’s a shame to not get a point at least.”
De Gea was making his senior tournament debut despite getting embroiled in an off-the-field controversy just three days before the game, when his name appeared in a police investigation into a Spanish pornographic filmmaker.
It was Spain’s first win in the opening match of a major tournament since beating Russia 4-1 at Euro 2008. It had lost to Switzerland at the 2010 World Cup, drawn Italy at Euro 2012 and lost to the Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup.
Spain won the last two European Championships but is trying to redeem itself from a disappointing early elimination at the World Cup in Brazil, when it arrived as the favorite but couldn’t make it out of the group stage.
The result extended Spain’s unbeaten streak at European Championships to 13 games, with 10 wins and three draws. The team hasn’t lost since a 1-0 defeat by Portugal in 2004. It also hasn’t conceded a goal in the European tournament since its opener in 2012, a 1-1 draw against Italy.