Spain ensured they kept their winning mentality in check as they defeated 10 man Serbia with a completely changed starting line up at the Zdzislaw Krzyszkowiak Stadium on Friday evening.
La Roja enjoyed much of the early possession but it was Serbia who carved out the first opportunity of the game after only five minutes. Starlet Andrij Zivkovic whipped in a near post corner which was flicked on to the back post, where Serbian central defender Veljkovic met the ball unopposed to see his effort balloon over the bar.
This early scare seemed to jump start La Roja as they started to dictate play in the final third and eventually created a chance for Athletic Bilbao forward Inaki Williams. Following good work down the left side from Oyarzabal, his pull back from the by line was blocked and fell into Williams’ path but his effort, which was goal bound, was blocked by Antonov.
Much like Spain, this seemed to spur Serbia in to action and it was just after the quarter of an hour mark when forward Radonjic slipped through prolific frontman Djurdjevic one on one with Spanish stopper, Pau Lopez. The striker, who hit 11 goals in his previous 14 games should have done better, but saw his tame effort easily saved at the near post.
In an almost identical scenario, the somewhat surprise call up Carlos Soler got played through following a superb splitting pass from Sevilla B central defender Diego Gonzalez. The Valencia youngster latched onto the pass, taking a delicate first touch before attempting to dink it over the onrushing Manojlovic but the Serbian goalkeeper got a hand to the attempt and diverted it away from danger.
Serbia pressed heavily when not in possession and managed to turn over play successfully on a number of occasions but they could do nothing as Inaki Williams put through Sociedad fullback Odriozola who timed his run and subsequent cut back to perfection, finding the unmarked Denis Suarez who drilled home from close range to put Spain one up, in what proved to be a vital goal, being the only of the game.
Following some good wing play again from Oyarzabal, his precise cross just behind the Serbian back line was not capitalised upon as Soler ran in unopposed to the back post, blazing over when it seemed easier to score.
It was not long after this miss which proved to be a pivotal moment in the game. After an earlier booking for a clumsy foul on left back Jose Gaya, Djurdjevic went in to an aerial challenge with centre back Merino but led with an elbow which caught the Spaniard square in the face. There could be little argument as referee Gediminas Mazeika brandished a second yellow and reduced Serbia to 10 men.
The second half saw Spain maintain their dominance with possession and continued to test the Serbian goalkeeper, with him making saves from Denis Suarez and Inaki Williams, however despite having 10 men, they continued to push forward and in the last quarter of the game, found some joy.
Spanish keeper Pau Lopez, who spent last season on loan at Tottenham Hotspur, made a brilliant save after Zivkovic unleashed a half volley destined for the top corner, before a finger tip diverted the ball over the bar. Zivkovic continued to be the one bright spark outfield in the Serbian side, carving out chances and looking lively on the ball.
The Benfica star along with Manojlovic were big positives for Serbia but it was Denis Suarez who revelled in in starting spot for Spain, perhaps marking his territory, giving manager Albert Celades Lopez a big decision to make for the next game of the tournament. Stick with Betis’ Dani Ceballos or draft in the Barcelona man.
Serbia continued searching for an opening but could not break through the strong defensive unit Spain have assembled and ultimately, the quality of individuals was the decisive factor in this game and as the final whistle was blown, it was little surprise that Spain won the match, being favourites from the outset.