Reigning World and European champions Spain needed an 86th-minute strike from Roberto Soldado to beat Georgia 1-0 in their opening Group I qualifier for the 2014 World Cup in Tbilisi on Wednesday.
It looked set to be a frustrating start to La Roja’s bid to make it to the finals in Brazil, as a wall of Georgian defenders repelled wave after wave of attack and the hosts even initially overcame the loss of goalkeeper Giorgi Loria to injury in the second half.
But then the visitors played a corner short to substitute Cesc Fabregas, whose low centre was swept home by Soldado.
It was the perfect riposte from the Valencia striker, who was not included in Vicente del Bosque’s squad for the Euro 2012 campaign, to the surprise of many at the time.
The win maintains Spain’s unbeaten run in competitive matches stretching back to their 1-0 loss to Switzerland in their opening game at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
“I would like to congratulate Georgia for their extraordinary performance,” said Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque.
“They played with great enthusiasm and made it very difficult for us.”
Del Bosque added that the second-half introductions of Cesc, Pedro Rodriguez and Santi Cazorla proved crucial in helping Spain break down their opponents.
“We had various options to try and break through, and it’s true that Cesc and Pedro moved well between the lines, with intelligence, and it was from that the gap eventually appeared.”
Georgia coach Temuri Ketsbaia had seen his side beat Belarus 1-0 here in their opening qualifier at the weekend, but he made it clear that Spain arrived at the Boris Paichadze stadium as “the best team of all time.”
And yet this was so very nearly a huge anti-climax for a Spain side that had cruised to the finals of the European Championship by winning every qualifier.
The pattern of the game was like so many involving Spain in recent times, with Georgia sometimes having all 11 players back behind the ball as the visitors camped in the final third.
They had chances, with David Silva crashing a left-foot shot off the woodwork following Xavi Hernandez’s lay-off just before the half-hour mark.
Soon after, a Xavi effort from 25 yards was tipped over the bar by Loria, before the Barcelona playmaker found Soldado, who was denied by the Dinamo Tbilisi ‘keeper.
With the scores still goalless, there was always a threat that Georgia could steal the lead with a moment of magic, and they nearly did just that early in the second half when defender Aleksandr Amisulashvili curled a shot off Iker Casillas’ right-hand post.
But that was a rare moment of respite, and Georgia looked in trouble when, after a stoppage of several minutes for treatment, Loria had to be replaced.
His place was taken by Roin Kvaskhvadze, who was winning his first cap.
It proved to be quite a baptism of fire for the 23-year-old, who held on for 13 minutes until Soldado finally struck to silence the home fans in a 56,000 sell-out crowd.