Pass, pass, pass, miss.
That was the story for Spain in their first two Euro 2020 matches, creating an intense itch that they finally scratched against Slovakia, with their 5-0 thrashing in their final Group E match halting growing criticism.
Coach Luis Enrique said La Roja were "a cava bottle inching the cork out"; it popped and the goals flowed amid intense Seville heat last Wednesday.
Despite the rout, which helped them reach the last 16, this is not a vintage Spain. They do not have players on the level of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, who inspired them to Euro 2008 and 2012 glory, as well as their 2010 World Cup win.
And up-front, the situation is worse, with Fernando Torres and David Villa having a significant edge on Alvaro Morata and Gerard Moreno.
That makes it more important than ever that Luis Enrique’s side capitalises when they finally find the crack in their opponents’ defence, and Manchester City winger Ferran Torres may be the man to do that against Croatia on Monday.
Torres, 21, is one of the better finishers at Luis Enrique’s disposal, and unlike many of his team-mates, is happy to play direct football.
He boasts the individual quality on the ball to beat his man and run at defences, without needing to come inside and look for passing options. At the same time, he is au fait with Spain’s natural possession game, to be expected after a year under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage.Getty/Goal
“When you see you’re playing well and the ball isn’t going in, it’s normal to feel some doubts, but that is where the player has to be calmer than ever and keep doing what they planned, because these doubts are dangerous doubts,” said Torres ahead of the Croatia clash.
The versatile forward netted a hat-trick in Spain’s remarkable 6-0 win over Germany in November’s Nations League clash, perhaps La Roja’s greatest night since Iker Casillas lifted the Euro 2012 trophy in Kiev.
Torres also boasted a strong goal record for City, with 13 goals in 36 appearances, of which only 24 were starts, along with seven goals in 14 Spain appearances. The most recent of those came against Slovakia, seconds after appearing from the bench.
Brought on for Morata, who missed a penalty and failed to get on the scoresheet, Torres made an instant impact with a cunning backheel flick strike from a well-worked short corner.
He showed the confidence that the Juventus striker has been badly lacking.
"Ferran has an incredible sense for goal,” explained Guardiola after he scored a hat-trick against Newcastle in May. “In training, he already has the ability and he is a good finisher.
"He has pace, quality and good decision-making. Some games we need a proper striker and we’ve used him there and he’s done really well.”Getty/Goal
With fewer minutes in his legs, not just at Euro 2020 but over the past year, Torres could yet have a huge impact in the knockout rounds, even if he has to settle for a place on the bench against Croatia in Copenhagen.
Luis Enrique will likely keep faith in Moreno and Pablo Sarabia, for their form, and Morata out of his stubborn streak. PSG forward Sarabia helped force the breakthrough against Slovakia, with his strike off the woodwork being palmed into his own net by the hapless Martin Dubravka.
Were it not for that moment of madness, the cork might have stayed firmly in place, with Morata again struggling to find his feet in front of goal.
Neither the understandable criticism nor the unacceptable abuse and death threats he has received have helped him, while ven the applause from the stands in La Cartuja to try and cover up the whistles and jeers is tinged with unintentional condescension.
Perhaps Morata will feel at ease far away from the shackles of his homeland, but if not, Torres will be waiting again for his chance. He has edged ahead of Dani Olmo, even though the former Dinamo Zagreb forward will be desperate to face the national team who tried to convince him to play for them.
Croatia, shorn of Covid-19 positive Ivan Perisic, are still a far tougher proposition than the wilting Slovaks. The 2018 World Cup runners-up like to keep the ball themselves, with Luka Modric’s battle against Sergio Busquets promising to be a mini-Clasico in midfield.
A tight, even game is anticipated in the Danish capital. As with Federico Chiesa’s impact off the bench for Italy against Austria, Torres’s fresh legs, direct running and clinical finishing can be a lethal weapon for Luis Enrique if Morata fires blanks again.