During tournaments days between matches go by slowly, especially when your team didn’t win their first game and your customarily humble and balanced manager shows acute and worrying symptoms of Mourinhitis. This unusual disease, transmitted by a rare species of Portuguese fly, converts its subjects into bitter, ill-tempered creatures, instilling a siege attitude into them, as though the whole world were conspiring against their interests.
Spain’s debut didn’t reach the levels of brilliance most of us Spaniards expected, which would have been just fine, especially because the squad kept their tournament options open by earning that final draw. The reason why most Spaniards felt a respectable level of frustration after those 90 entertaining minutes finished has to do with one of our favourite national pastimes, improvisation. We, natives of the Kingdom of Spain, definitely prefer to improvise rather than planning, but hate it when someone else acts that same way. We didn’t like del Bosque to change his usual approach at the very last minute, and we found it preposterous that he hadn’t tested the false-nine formation before his/our players stepped on that seriously damaged pitch in Gdansk. Paradoxically, most of us would have pulled one of those last-minute tricks had we been in his place.
On Monday and Tuesday, Del Bosque and his players had to answer endless questions regarding the manager’s arguable lack of planning and the unclear rationale behind his new tactical structure. The usually quiet man from Salamanca didn’t behave as such, sending plenty of messages to those who dared to question his change of approach, either in person, like two Spanish football writers, or through the media, like certain top-team manager born in Setúbal, normally quite reluctant to hear other colleagues give their opinions on his white-dressed team.
Del Bosque’s explanations sounded as defensive as they could possibly sound. ‘We know much better than anyone else what is best for this team’ and ‘I would do exactly the same thing’ not only are uncharacteristically grumpy for Del Bosque, but also represent a complete lack of self-criticism after his untested experiment brought little to no results.
Thank God that Mourinhitis goes away after two nights of sound sleep and warm food. Del Bosque had a much better interaction with my journo colleagues on Wednesday morning, and avoided to make further comments on his critics – ‘I won’t criticise anyone just to defend my own position’. He can also rejoice over a dazzling performance by Fernando Torres on Tuesday’s training session, so one suspects that adding one thing – Del Bosque’s recovery of his own self – to another – his stubbornness with Torres, a key part of his own self – we can safely say that Spain’s starting XI on Thursday won’t bring us more unexpected cameos nor players in false positions. Therefore Casillas; Arbeloa, Ramos, Piqué, Alba; Alonso, Busquets; Iniesta, Xavi, Silva; Torres should start against Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland.
Just in case you hadn’t realized yet, Spain need a win from this match almost as much as Ireland do. Another draw or a loss would leave Spain in a terrible position for their third match, desperately requiring to defeat Croatia and then wait for the result of the match between Italy and Ireland to confirm or deny the passport towards the Ukraine and the knockout stages.
Ireland are hardly arguing about false nines, after an uncharacteristic first match of the tournament. The Boys in Green conceded two goals from set pieces, which shouldn’t happen again on Thursday, and had tough luck with the ref, but were in general outplayed and well beaten by the Croatians. Offensively, they barely created something of value, while their defence looked rattled at times. A terrible start to each half – Croatia scored in the first five minutes of each half – and Shay Given’s performance didn’t help either.
For the Irish, the only way is up, as they can’t possibly play any worse against Spain that they did in their first match. Official stats show that Ireland haven’t defeated the Spaniards after six matches in European Competitions, but most of us Spaniards still remember well our last meeting with the Boys in Green during the final stages of a major tournament, back in WC02. The game, as tough as they get, ended in a penalty shootout in which Saint Iker kept Spain in the tournament for one more round. From that starting XI, only Iker repeats – Xavi was on the bench –, while among the Irish the eternal Robbie Keane also played in 2002.
Again, La Roja have no room for error against the Irish. Here’s hope that Del Bosque comes back to his usual composed and methodical self, and forgets about tactical innovations for which the squad haven’t got the necessary pieces. We want tiki-taka, we want strikers and we want it all fast.