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Morata late show gives Spain winning start

Spain 1-0 Russia
Substitute Álvaro Morata headed the only goal eight minutes from time to ensure the Under-21 title holders began with a victory in Group B.

Morata late show gives Spain winning start
Morata late show gives Spain winning start ©UEFA.com

Spain made a winning start to the defence of their UEFA European Under-21 Championship crown but they left it late in Group B, debutant Álvaro Morata coming off the bench to break Russia's resistance with eight minutes remaining in Jerusalem.

It looked as if Julen Lopetegui's title holders would be frustrated by a combination of their own awry finishing and Russia's stubborn defending but eventually their superiority told when Thiago Alcántara swept in a free-kick from the right flank and Morata's back-header sent the ball flashing past the fingertips of Nikolai Zabolotni.

Real Madrid CF forward Morata, a 63rd-minute replacement for Iker Muniain, might have grabbed a late second too, when hitting the post with a shot on the stretch, but his solitary goal was enough.

Unbeaten in qualifying, Spain have come here as the team to beat and it was no surprise when they took the early initiative on a balmy evening inside the Teddy Stadium, Martín Montoya rifling a deflected shot just wide of the far post and Marc Batra heading over from the ensuing corner.

Yet if Spain controlled possession in now customary fashion, Russia's containment strategy limited the holders' subsequent openings in the first half. Indeed Zabolotni’s two saves of note came from long-range strikes, the goalkeeper stopping Thiago's free-kick and Asier Illarramendi's 25-metre drive. In between Rodrigo Tello got clear on the left only to screw his shot into the side netting.

At the other end, Russia coach Nikolai Pisarev had selected the Real Madrid-based Denis Cheryshev to lead his attack in the absence of both Fedor Smolov and Alan Dzagoev, who will join the squad after the senior side's FIFA World Cup qualifier against Portugal tomorrow. Cheryshev's touch helped tee up Pavel Yakolev for a dipping volley that flew narrowly wide and provided the only scare Spain faced all game.

By the time Cheryshev made way for Maksim Kanunnikov moments before the hour, Pisarev had already sent on Maksim Grigoryev for Shota Bibilov at half-time, but the red tide kept rolling towards the Russia goal. Rodrigo put two headers wide early in the second half, both times after crosses by Isco, who produced a wonderful piece of trickery to deceive Nikita Chicherin by the byline. More opportunities came Spain's way as Morata nodded Montoya's centre over and Tello sliced wide, and eventually their persistence paid off.

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