Eighteen months after his last game in charge, nine since he returned to the job and three after he should have led his team into Euro 2020, Spain’s manager Luis Enrique began a new era with a dramatic 1-1 draw against Germany that finally broke the silence in Stuttgart.
A Timo Werner goal had looked like being enough to take the home side to victory in an empty area and in a competition that can feel empty too. But if the Nations League lacks history or a real sense of meaning yet, and if this game lacked star players, it did not lack a finale.
At a time when international matches sit uneasily, crowbarred in between a season that has only just ended and another that is only just starting, this did at last offer a glimpse of a future more positive than some in Spain feared, particularly with the introduction of the daring, electric sub Ansu Fati, at 17 years and 306 days the youngest man to play for them in more than 80 years and one whose effect on this game was immediate.
It also delivered a 95th minute equaliser, tucked away and loudly celebrated by José Luis Gayà. For viewers from England, meanwhile, there was an early sight of three new Premier League players and the hint of recovery for a more familiar face, David de Gea keeping Spain alive until the final twist.
Eleven days after the Champions League final, Germany were without most of their European champions as Manuel Neuer, Serge Gnabry, Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka were all allowed to rest. By contrast, Spain did include Thiago Alcântara, the man for whom Liverpool are yet to find the money and who impressed here. They also started with the Europa League winner Jesús Navas on the right wing.
Newcomers to England in Chelsea’s Werner, Leeds’ Rodrigo and Manchester City’s Ferrán Torres all started, with Torres one of four players who made debuts alongside Óscar Rodríguez, Fati and Mikel Merino.
Rodrigo and Torres might have had goals in the first half; Werner got his early in the second. The man he beat was De Gea, included ahead of Kepa Arrizabalaga and Unai Simón despite doubts that have surrounded him. The Manchester United goalkeeper impressed with first-half saves from Thilo Kehrer, Julian Draxler and Leroy Sané and in the second with stops from Emre Can, Toni Kroos and Niklas Süle.
None were truly outstanding, but they will help a player under pressure. They helped Spain too, settling them after an unconvincing start. That said, Germany did not entirely convince either, the back three particularly. They almost gave away an early opener when Can’s dreadful back-pass and Kevin Trapp’s misjudgment set Rodrigo clear. But, seemingly free to roll the ball into an open net, the Leeds forward hesitated momentarily and was dispossessed.
As if alerted to the vulnerability, Torres went at Germany, drawing a free-kick from which Sergio Busquets’ volley was saved. Then, just before half-time Rodrigo was sent through only to be denied by Trapp. Between those opportunities, Sané released Werner. That time he lifted too high; just after the restart, he made no mistake. Ilkay Gündogan’s superb pass dropped behind Gayà for Robin Gosens and he laid it across for Werner, who stepped away from Sergio Ramos and Pau Torres to send a low finish into the bottom corner.
Werner should have had a second on the hour, supplied by Sané, only to hit the side-netting from a couple of yards, but it was Spain who pushed, even at the risk of exposure. Trapp had to be out quickly to deny Fabián and Thiago’s footwork opened space to flash a shot wide. At the other end, Can escaped up the right and fired a shot that De Gea blocked with his knees; next, he held Kroos’ effort; then he tipped over a Süle header. Spain were still standing; as Gayà tucked away from close range right at the end, they were smiling too.