Cesar Azpilicueta made his first appearance at Euro 2020 as Spain booked their place in the knockout stages with a comfortable victory against Slovakia.
The Chelsea captain came in for Atletico Madrid’s Marcos Llorente at right-back as La Roja faced a crucial test in Seville, needing to record their first win of the tournament to ensure progress to the last 16.
It had been a laboured start to the Euros for Spain with back-to-back draws and some criticism over their lack of penetration in the final third.
Azpilicueta’s inclusion in the team was surely not designed to solve that particular problem but the defender forced one of the first saves of the contest early on, advancing into the box to strike a low effort that Martin Dubravka, the Newcastle goalkeeper, managed to keep out. It was to prove just the start of an eventful first half for the Magpies custodian.
Blues fans will recall a productive relationship between Azpilicueta and Alvaro Morata during the duo’s 18 months together as Stamford Bridge team-mates and that old link-up was almost renewed to great effect after 20 minutes. Azpilicueta cut inside onto his left foot and floated in an inviting cross that narrowly drifted over the striker’s head and wide.
Morata’s frustrations in front of goal continued as he saw a penalty saved before Dubravka went from hero to zero, gifting Spain the lead by palming the ball into his own net after Pablo Sarabia’s strike had cannoned up into the air off the crossbar.
The goalkeeper was at fault again before the break as he chased a loose ball around the box before Manchester City’s Aymeric Laporte eventually headed in to hand the hosts a healthy 2-0 lead at half-time.
Azpilicueta was making his first appearance on the international stage since November 2018 but few of his previous 25 caps will have required as little defensive discipline as this one.
Slovakia rarely threatened and the scoreline soon reflected Spain’s dominance as Sarabia, Ferran Torres and another own goal increased the upbeat atmosphere in Andalusia. The Chelsea man was replaced for the final 13 minutes with the points safely secured.
It was the first time La Roja had scored five in a Euros game in their history and ensured their safe passage to the last 16, albeit as group runners-up following Sweden’s 3-2 win over Poland in the other Group E game. Enrique’s men will face Croatia in Copenhagen next.