Thursday, June 18, 2009
Transfer talk upsetting perfect Spain
Spain continued their placid walk through the first phase of the Confederations Cup with a lacklustre 1-0 victory over Asian Champions Iraq on Wednesday afternoon. The Spaniards have now qualified for the semi-finals and will go all out against South Africa on Saturday to maintain the top spot of their group, pick up a world record for their 15th consecutive win and increase their unbeaten run to a record-equalling 35 matches.
In stark contrast with the scenery back in Iraq, the match looked like the result of a non-aggression pact between both teams and the South African fans had to bring most of the entertainment to an otherwise dull afternoon.
Spain lacked the hunger they had shown during the first half of their encounter against New Zealand, while the Iraqis were content to sit back and wait, confident on their disciplined five-man defence.
After the romp over New Zealand, Vicente del Bosque introduced four changes in the line-up, as centre backs Gerard Piqué and Carlos Marchena, plus midfielders Santiago Cazorla and Antonio Mata joined the starting eleven. They all had decent individual performances, but the team as a whole did not demonstrate the flowing passing or the killer finishing that was so evident against the Kiwis.
Iraq not only defended with organisation and discipline, but also displayed a decent set of skilled players, capable of holding the ball under pressure for long spells. Skipper Nashat Akram stood out as the leader, an imposing figure in central midfield able to get Xavi Hernández and Xabi Alonso in trouble almost by himself.
The first 45 minutes went by slowly, as Spain struggled to find their rhythm and only managed to create half chances. The public had expressed their boredom by starting a set of Mexican waves as early as the 17th minute and it was a sign of things to come during the second half.
After the interval, La Fúria came back determined to score. Eventually striker David Villa broke the deadlock in the 54th minute, finally surpassing Fernando Hierro and becoming the second top scorer in Spain's national team history. "El Guaje" ("The kid" in Asturias' dialect) headed home yet another pinpoint cross from in-form left-back Joan Capdevila.
Being one goal down had no effect whatsoever on the Iraqis, who maintained their five-man line at the back and waited for the match to end without suffering further damage.
At this point both teams utterly lost the spotlight to the public. A section of the South African supporters right next to the press tribune started a chant that was immediately followed by the rest of the stadium, with the exception of the Spain and Iraqi fans, who had no idea of what was going on. The singing in the stands went on until the end of the match, out of sync with what was happening on the pitch, but vibrating, joyful, and at times downright breathtaking.
Now we have proof that the locals can have a ball regardless the quality of the match they're watching. Hopefully they won't need to use much of that ability in the rest of the tournament.
Spain verdict: Well below their recent average. When everyone thought we would witness another top-class hammering by the European Champions, the Iraqi five-man defence looked almost insurmountable for the uninspired Spaniards. "I hope all teams play against us as defensively as Iraq did, it works to our advantage", said an unexpectedly upbeat del Bosque at the press conference.
A limited offensive production in one given match against an ultra-defensive side should not worry Spanish fans as yet, but the team will have to recover their passing rhythm and their fluency for their semi-final tie next week.
Iraq verdict: "VERY happy". Iraq boss Velibor "Bora" Milutinovic, arguably one of the most remarkable characters in football, said he was "very, VERY happy" with the apparently negative result, as this single-goal defeat gives his team a decent chance to make it to the semi-finals. For that dream to come true the Iraqis have to beat New Zealand on the 20th, while Spain would have to defeat the hosts, South Africa, in their last group match. "I'll celebrate this defeat for a long time to come", Bora stated.
The charismatic Serbian was directly responsible for one of Spain's most painful defeats (at least top five), when his Nigeria side beat La Fúria 3-2 in France '98, breaking a 23-match unbeaten run by Spain. Repeating that feat with Iraq seemed far-fetched, but he did put together a more than decent side that was rarely caught off guard and never resorted to foul play to defend their goal.
Stadium verdict: Fantastic. Two out of two for the Confederations Cup Committee in the refurbishment department so far. The Free State Stadium looks fantastic, has easy access, offers a great view of the pitch from all angles (no running track!), 48.000 all-seated capacity& Not much more to ask for.
Fan verdict: Amazing in an almost bizarre way. When the match began, and taking a look at the nearly empty stadium, it looked as if we would watch the European Champions almost by ourselves again.
From the 15th minute onwards, the organisation decided to open the gates to anyone keen on coming in, so that the stadium was close to full capacity after the interval. The newcomers wanted to have a good time no matter what, and the singing exhibition they gave in the second half was nothing sort of astonishing.
Witnessing their chants I felt for the first time that we were actually in Africa, after a week of disappointingly forgettable landscapes, hotels and restaurants both in Rustenburg and Bloemfontein. Those fans proved that even globalisation has its limits.
However, even though the South African supporters stole the show, most of them only showed up because it was free, and their performance occurred despite the match. One wonders what will happen in the next following games if the doors remain closed and the Committee does not find other alternatives for the locals to be a real part of this tournament.
Gossip level: Getting worse by the minute. The uncertain future of several players in the Spanish squad keeps taking their focus out of the competition. Villa's goal can't hide his terrible mood during the last couple of days and his anxiousness for most of this afternoon. At least six other team members can ignore their destinations for the coming season, a situation far from ideal that will indeed have an impact on the side if it's not resolved soon.