Spanish confidence justified by Uruguay defeat

Posted by Roger Bennett

RECIFE, Brazil -- Recife's Arena Pernambuco is a compact, steep-sided sweatbox. Before Sunday night's opening round Confederation's showdown between Spain and Uruguay, AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" ricocheted out of the PA system. The 1990 hit seemed a bit of a random selection, but it proved to be prescient. The Copa America title holders were quickly overrun by the World Cup and Euro champions whose bravura first-half performance raised the specter they may very well win the World Cup once again.

Coach Vicente Del Bosque was bullish in his post-match comments. "We dominated the game," he declared. "They had two danger men but we annulled them" he added, referring to Uruguay's front pairing of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani who looked about as well-suited as Hayden Panettiere and Wladimir Klitschko.

Del Bosque was not exaggerating his team’s supremacy. Xavi played like a man hell-bent on proving rumors of his demise to be premature, completing 68 first-half passes -- equaling the number of the entire Uruguayan team. Andres Iniesta also ran rampant as Spain savored 71 percent possession. At times, Uruguay not only failed to compete, they barely could touch the ball.

Luis Suarez’s 88th minute free kick may have made the last few minutes of the game uncomfortable for Spain as Andres Iniesta admitted. “We lacked the third goal that could have put us at ease,” he said, suggesting the punishing combination of muggy heat and lashing rain proved as much of a challenge as the Uruguayans by adding, “The humidity wore us down and made us slow.” Del Bosque agreed, giving truth to the cliché that a 2-0 lead is the most difficult to defend in football. “When you are two goals up, your players stop a little bit which is why we suffered at the end,” he said.

The Uruguayans had traveled with a huge supporter contingent, and their fans howled in derision from the very first minute as the Spaniards quickly calibrated their cascading passing rhythm.

When challenged by the suggestion his team’s possession-hogging approach could be perceived as boring, Del Bosque was quick to shrug off such criticism. “Within our style, we don't just pass it, we also strive for depth,” he said. “We alternate possession with penetration. ½ Tonight we always selected the good pass in the middle which gave us certainty in our performance.”

Del Bosque is correct. To say Spain is boring is to confuse the repetition of outcome and success with colorless style. As Uruguay’s defeated coach, Oscar Tabarez admitted, “Spain were far superior. They earned their victory in every way.” Barcelona’s mortal performance in this year’s Champions League may have been the best indicator of just how difficult it is to play dynastically with such focus and precision.

That truth is perhaps the most impressive aspect of Spain’s performance. The extent to which, despite their back-to-back Euro victories sandwiching 2010’s World Cup triumph, the team avoid the sin of complacency. Del Bosque’s squad may be on a 23-match unbeaten run but they started this game with the hunger of men who have everything to prove. “When we win, the entire team wins,” the Spanish manager said, explaining the collective culture which underpins his team’s success. “Our main task as coaches is to make sure our athletes look ahead and never rest on the past.”

Tabarez remained optimistic in defeat. “It was only by appealing to shame and dignity we played better in the second half,” he said. Yet in a weak group that includes Nigeria and Tahiti, the Uruguayan suggested, “Our luck in this competition depends on the next game, which will raise the possibility we will qualify as one of the final four.”

Spain’s pathway to the semifinal appears clearer. Del Bosque remained tight lipped on whether he will rest players against Tahiti. "We have not decided if we will use the starters," he explained of the real possibility the Spaniards, whose bench includes Javi Martinez, Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla and David Silva, may keep their starters fresh for the elimination round. It was left to Iniesta to sum up his team’s approach: “The first match [in a tournament] is critical and we emerge tonight with a very good taste in our mouths.”

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