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Spain pass a new test in familiar style to make Euro 2024 statement

Two sides who could scarcely have more different tactical ideas and playing styles.

Two sides who have polar opposite histories, in international footballing terms, too.

Georgia’s men’s side had never been to a major international tournament before this summer, let alone scored a goal or won a game. Or even, if we can entertain such fanciful notions, of reaching the knock-out stage. Spain won the European Championship as recently as 2012, reached the semis last time out and were world champions only 14 years ago.

Football heritage and history isn’t only made up of the men’s Euros and World Cup, though, so the true contextual national gap is even wider: Georgia’s women have never been to a tournament either, whereas La Roja are the reigning world and Women’s Nations League champions. There is quite simply an enormous gap between the two, a chasm so large in football terms that it almost defies explanation.

But for 21 minutes at Euro 2024, there was an almighty shock on. For 21 awe-inspiring minutes, an incredible dream received the most raucous, sensational backing from the stands and one of the very biggest of favourites were truly, visibly shaken.

There’s another difference between the two nations though, and this one ultimately played to Spain’s advantage: while Georgia’s approach is heavily emotional, feeding on the frenzied support and the insatiable excitement at launching anything as mundane as a counter-attack, Spain’s players are more assured and expectant, comfortable in the knowledge that the game is long and they can control most of it. That comes from experience. That comes from time at the top.

Most of all, that comes from winning.

Rodri, as he has so often, played the part of chief rescuer, though Nico Williams was the true star of the show. Five minutes on from giving his teammates a double-handed “calma, calma” sermon – while in possession, no less – Spain’s defensive midfielder took the ball on the edge of the Georgia box and planted a shot so far into the bottom corner of the net that even the excellent Giorgi Mamardashvili couldn’t reach it, an equaliser six minutes before the break.

Spain needed that; while they had absolutely dominated right from kick-off, the previous ten minutes had grown more strained, more frantic, going to ground more easily in search of cheap wins and looking around in frustration at each other when yet another 60-yard counter-attack somehow left them two-vs-two at the back.

Georgia took a shock lead early on
Georgia took a shock lead early on (Getty Images)

That was a direct result of the opener, Robin Le Normand the unfortunate defender who bundled into his own net under pressure, meaning Georgia led the tie after 19 per cent possession and precisely zero shots. It was also the first time Spain had conceded at Euro 2024, and therefore the first time they have had to come from behind.

Turkey might just be a nose in front in tournament terms for wildest and noisiest fans, but Georgia added a whole lot of cumulative decibels to their tally in Cologne: non-stop pre-match, rousing at kick-off, explosive every time they had reason to cheer their team on thereafter, and plenty of times when they really didn’t.

The Georgian fans might scream loudest when Khvicha Kvaratskhelia gets on the ball, but in this game as in their previous ones, Georges Mikautadze was often the best outlet, the most daring and dangerous runner, the forward with the eye for a pass as well as for a gap in the defence.

Even so, the No.7 almost had the entire stadium on their feet to applaud him minutes after the restart, Kvaratskhelia dancing past two challenges and shooting from fully 50 yards with Unai Simon out of his goal, missing the post by only a whisker.

It did miss, though – and within minutes it was 2-1 in the other direction.

Lamine Yamal had looked a little off-kilter in the first half, perhaps the still-16-year-old just slightly unnerved for once by either occasion or atmosphere, but he certainly didn’t hide and soon showed his class. First, his free-kick was brilliantly parried away by the overworked Mamardashvili. Then the winger was found again by another sweeping pass, tucked in on his left foot and delivered the perfect cross to the far post, with Fabian Ruiz given the task of nodding in from close range. Even then the Georgia No.1 almost stopped it, but it would only have been delaying the inevitable at this point.

Nico Williams celebrates after scoring Spain’s third
Nico Williams celebrates after scoring Spain’s third (Getty Images)

Spain sensed their moment, and pressed the advantage. Dani Olmo came on and almost buried a low strike soon after. Yamal missed a sitter, after a defensive lapse. Georgia made subs to keep the energy and intent up, but forays forward were ever-more infrequent by the time they passed the hour mark and cost them once they had to start to overcommit.

Williams was irrepressible all night long, beating his man and linking play, setting up chances and keeping the tempo high. He deserved to get on the scoresheet after earlier assisting Rodri and duly did so, hammering in a brilliant solo third on the counter-attack before Olmo hit a fourth.

For Georgia, this was simply a step too far after a truly historical summer. For Spain, this was a new test in so many ways, but they’ve come through it in familiar style: by simply winning.

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