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Costa makes debut, Spain pip Italy England, France win

MADRID, March 6, (RTRS): Diego Costa made a disappointing debut for Spain in a friendly against Italy on Wednesday and it was the much livelier Pedro who struck the only goal in a 1-0 victory for the world and European champions. All eyes were on Brazil-born Costa at Atletico Madrid’s Calderon Stadium, where he plays his club football, but although he linked up well at times with his new team mates he did not come close to finding the net. The heavyweight clash between the last two nations to win the World Cup was predictably dominated by the Spanish and they were rewarded in the 63rd minute when Pedro was first to a loose ball and fired in off Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. The match kicked off at 2200 local time and although there were swathes of empty seats, there was a festive atmosphere at the 55,000-capacity arena next to the Manzanares river.

A huge banner was unfurled before kickoff in homage to former Spain coach Luis Aragones, the man who helped lay the foundations for a glorious run of success by leading the nation to victory at Euro 2008. Spain threatened as early as the second minute when Andres Iniesta sent Jordi Alba through on the left. The visitors almost grabbed a surprise lead two minutes later when Alessio Cerci sped down the right and his mishit cross-shot bounced away off a post. Cesc Fabregas should have done better after Cesar Azpilicueta found some space on the right for the first time in the 25th minute but the Barcelona playmaker skewed his first-time shot over the bar. Thiago Alcantara, deployed in the central playmaker’s role instead of the rested Xavi, was denied by a superb Buffon save when he was through on goal early in the second half and substitute David Silva fired wide when well placed moments later.

England 1, Denmark 0
In London, an 82nd-minute header by Daniel Sturridge was the only top-quality moment in a laboured performance as a pedestrian England team squeezed a 1-0 win over Denmark at Wembley. Sturridge, left unmarked at the far post, nodded substitute Adam Lallana’s cross beyond the reach of Kasper Schmeichel who had a superb match in goal for Denmark. Apart from a late burst of attacking play, England were generally uninspiring against mediocre opposition who have failed to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil in June.
On the plus side there were promising displays from young Liverpool winger Raheem Sterling and Southampton’s debutant left back Luke Shaw who came on for Ashley Cole, winning his 107th cap, at halftime.
The match was billed as the final audition for the World Cup as it was England’s last game before manager Roy Hodgson names his provisional squad in May.
“I was very impressed with the performance of the young players in the second half especially,” Hodgson told reporters.
“The victory was a positive one and we deserved it after dominating the play. The fact is we put a lot of young players out and they all came off the field having done a good job and improved their chances.”
Denmark coach Morten Olsen said his team would have triumphed if Tottenham Hotspur playmaker Christian Eriksen had been fit.
Hodgson began the match with five Liverpool players - Glen Johnson, Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Sturridge and Sterling - but they failed to reproduce the form that has taken their club to second place in the Premier League.
Sturridge started on the left with Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney as the lone frontman. The Liverpool striker spent most of the first hour tracking back to defend and occasionally cutting in to his more favoured central position but to no avail.
Apart from chances for Rooney, Sterling and Sturridge at the end of the opening half, and one excellent effort from the goal-scorer before his late strike, England were content to meander around Wembley in slow-paced fashion for long spells.
Whenever the hosts threatened, Schmeichel proved unbeatable and gave the kind of exhibition his father Peter regularly produced for United and Denmark.
Sturridge’s fine late header was too good for any keeper to stop though.
Denmark had one chance on the break in the first half when Jakob Poulsen’s shot was cleared by Gary Cahill and they were also thwarted by goalkeeper Joe Hart who saved well from Morten Rasmussen in the second period.
England have been drawn in World Cup Group D with Uruguay, Costa Rica and Italy and whatever positive spin Hodgson has put on this show, they will need to play much better to have any chance of making an impression in Brazil.
France 2, Netherlands 0
In Paris, a razor-sharp Karim Benzema led France to a stylish 2-0 home victory over fellow World Cup finalists the Netherlands. The French were greatly helped by the miserable performance of the visitors’ defence as the Dutch back four were repeatedly outpaced on a springlike Parisian night. In-form Benzema opened the scoring with a fierce half volley in the 32nd minute before Blaise Matuidi doubled the tally with a spectacular volley four minutes before the break. The Netherlands, without the injured Arjen Robben, came closest to scoring when Robin van Persie’s first-half volley was parried away by Hugo Lloris. The Dutch started with two uncapped players, Quincy Promes and Jean-Paul Boetius as coach Louis van Gaal looked to experiment ahead of the World Cup. Van Persie started the game after recovering from a bout of sickness but Robben was not even on the match sheet because of a thigh injury.
France coach Didier Deschamps had Bayern Munich midfielder Franck Ribery on the bench while forward Antoine Griezmann was the only uncapped player to start. In central defence for France, Raphael Varane was paired with Eliaquim Mangala in place of usual starter Laurent Koscielny, who was suffering from a groin problem. France had the first clear chance in the 19th minute when Benzema’s header from Griezmann’s cross was cleared off the line by defender Ron Vlaar with the keeper beaten. The Netherlands, who dominated possession, typically relied on their wingers to threaten the French goal.
Croatia 2, Switzerland 2
In St Gallen, Josip Drmic twice put Switzerland in front and Ivica Olic replied both times for Croatia as the two World Cup finalists drew 2-2 in a lively friendly in St Gallen on Wednesday. Switzerland, who went through their qualifying group unbeaten, created plenty of openings and went ahead in the 34th minute after Danijel Pranjic lost possession in midfield. Drmic collected the ball and wriggled past his marker before beating Danijel Subasic with a low shot into the far corner. Olic levelled five minutes later when he was left unmarked at a corner and turned the ball in from five metres. Switzerland regained the lead two minutes after that when Steve von Bergen sent a long punt out of defence and Drmic raced clear of the Croatian rearguard to plant the ball past Subasic from a difficult angle. Croatia, who had started with Mario Mandzukic on the bench, brought on the Bayern Munich forward at halftime and quickly equalised. The ball was played inside Swiss fullback Stephan Lichtsteiner and Olic got in front of him and turned his shot wide of Diego Benaglio to score.

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