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Spain and Italy left neck and neck at top of group


An awkward night well negotiated by Spain. That's how you could sum up their assignment in Albania, who (as expected) parked the bus, sat back and waited for us. Mindful the hosts were only going to play one up front, Julen Lopetegui saved himself a man in defence and sent his side out in a 3-4-3 (with Sergio Ramos, Gerard Piqué and Nacho Monreal at the back); it didn't quite work, though. They pressed Albania, sure, but lacked the penetration out wide usually brought by the full-backs. They pushed hard through the middle, with Thiago Alcántara in sharp nick and slipping in some lovely balls. But it wasn't easy. Yet again, Spain worked the goalkeeper very little given the degree of their domination.

Andrés Iniesta (centre) looks to break through Albania's dogged backline in Shkodër.
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Andrés Iniesta (centre) looks to break through Albania's dogged backline in Shkodër.JuanJo-MartinEFE

Albania's resistance broken after the break

In the second half, Lopetegui changed things at the back. Sergio Busquets dropped in to centre-half alongside Piqué, and Ramos and Monreal went to full-back, pushing high up the pitch. This stretched the Albanian defence, opening up a wider range of possibilities for Spain. But football being football, the breakthrough came courtesy of a gift: home keeper Etrit Berisha did a Ter Stegen, playing it out through the middle with his feet, and doing so poorly; Vitolo cut it out and fed David Silva, who laid it to Diego Costa to score. It's a funny old game: 50 minutes trying to break down the Albania door, and suddenly it caves in all by itself. And not long after, newly introduced sub Nolito grabbed a second. Job done.

Spain's players celebrate Nolito's goal, which sealed a 2-0 win in Albania.
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Spain's players celebrate Nolito's goal, which sealed a 2-0 win in Albania.ARMANDO BABANIEFE

Spain level-pegging with Italy at top of Group G

All that remained was to wait for the result of the game involving Italy, who at one point trailed 2-1 in Macedonia but finally turned it around. Now we're left level on points at the head of the group, confirming the initial belief that it'd be neck and neck for top spot. Meanwhile, Ramos provided a major injury scare after going down and staying down when he landed awkwardly in an aerial challenge. The look on Piqué's face, and the speed with which he signalled he'd have to come off, led to concerns it was something very serious. But he was able to walk off the field, in doing so calming the worst fears. Incidentally, he played well this time; no excesses. Likewise Costa, who behaved impeccably. So much the better.