Spain fell to a 2-1 defeat by Slovakia after a disjointed performance that displayed plenty of the failings that were on show at the World Cup.
Kucka scored inside 20 minutes, lashing a free kick past Iker Casillas that the goalkeeper should have coped better with, beaten by the flight of a straight ball and almost diving past the shot. Casillas got a hand to it but his positioning was sub-par at best.
Alcacer equalised inside the last 10 minutes, meeting Jordi Alba’s cross after getting the benefit of the doubt from the assistant referee. The Valencia forward’s cushioned touch delicately teed up a scuffed but accurate finish.
Spain pushed for a winner but were caught on the break, Miroslav Stoch meeting a cross from Marek Hamsik with a well-placed finish and barely a Spain defender in sight.
While Casillas will be criticised for failing to stop the first goal it wasn’t a good night all round for Spain, despite Alcacer’s late equaliser almost salvaging a point. There was precious little urgency to the football from the European champions and Diego Costa, while arguably entering his best international performance, still didn’t replicate his club form.
Gerard Pique returned to the Spain side while Costa was passed fit, both having missed the last round of internationals due to injury or fitness concerns.
The opening 10 minutes was lively with Slovakia having the best chance, Casillas alert to a Robert Mak volley, shifting his weight quickly and making an excellent stop. The captain undid that great piece of work shortly after though, getting Kucka’s long-range free kick all wrong and conceding.
Casillas was called on more often than his opposite number with Spain struggling to cope with the movement of the Slovakia midfield and forward line. The hosts were aggressive – but within the bounds of the law, mostly – and ready to spring forward at a moment’s notice.
Andres Iniesta finally tested Matus Kozacik in the Slovakia goal past the half-hour mark but Spain’s attack was sluggish and any crosses sent in to Costa were too low for the Chelsea striker to make use of. Costa also engaged in a running battle with Martin Skrtel, which will be one to watch when the Blues next meet Liverpool.
Kozacik made a stunning save from Costa’s header as Spain ended the half on the front foot but Slovakia were thoroughly deserving of their lead at the interval. Spain carried the momentum into the second half, Kozacik’s goal coming under sustained pressure.
Vicente del Bosque attempted to keep up the momentum with an attack-minded change, introducing Pedro Rodriguez for Raul Albiol. But while La Roja continued to attack, Slovakia were able to draw every player behind the ball and cut out the space for Spain’s intricate passing.
Paco Alcacer was introduced for the last 20 minutes as Spain chased an equaliser. It didn’t get any easier to unlock a well-drilled Slovakia defence, though, and with Marek Hamsik dictating play, there was always a lurking threat. The Napoli man gave a dynamic edge to the Slovakia midfield completely lacking in Spain’s.
Alcacer’s intervention should meant Spain came away from a hard game with something to show for it but they paid for their attacking changes. Santi Cazorla, a nominal right-back, lost Stoch and gave the winger space to meet a deep cross for the late winner, Spain's first qualification defeat since 2006.
Slovakia 2-1 Spain
Kucka 19 (SLK) Alcacer 82 (ESP), Stoch 87 (SLK)
Slovakia: Kozacik; Pekarik, Skrtel, Durica, Gyomber; Hubocan, Weiss (Duris 54), Mak (Stoch 62), Kucka (Kiss 82), Hamsik; Pekovski
Spain: Casillas; Juanfran (Cazorla 81), Pique, Albiol (Pedro 58), Alba; Busquets, Koke, Cesc; Iniesta, David Silva (Paco Alcacer 71), Diego Costa
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers [NED]