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Wednesday, June 16, 2010
It's a funny old game

Phil Ball

Well would you believe it? The most improbable result of the first phase of matches occurs right at the end of the opening sparring round. The strange thing is though, that the more you look back on the Spain v Switzerland match, the less surprising the result appears. Spain have now lost twice in fifty games, both times on South African soil and on each occasion to sides who were ostensibly comfortable opponents. • Spain 0-1 Switzerland
• Del Bosque unhappy
• Photo gallery Photo Gallery It's a bit rich to say that a pattern is emerging, but Spain played this opening game as if the goals would come by a process of default - or by virtue of mathematical probability. You could see this when David Villa blew a chance in the first half that he had created himself by dint of some wonderful play, feigning to shoot then turning outside his marker, only to dink the final shot too delicately with his left foot, as if he were in two minds whether to play in Silva or not, who was offering support. But Villa didn't look over-concerned with what looks now like a bad miss. His expression suggested that he knew more chances would come along, and that he would bag one of them, eventually. A lesser player in a lesser team would have sworn at the skies, ranted and raved. Villa just shrugged and got on with it. It was an understandable gesture from someone accustomed to scoring a good percentage of the many chances put on a plate for him, for the duration of any match playing for Spain. But the Swiss came with other ideas. Their game plan was simpler but ultimately more effective, and it actually improved when the ponderous Senderos limped off. The Swiss got tighter, and defended with coherence. Not only that, but it was obvious that the longer Spain failed to score, the more likely it was that their game plan would begin to turn more ragged. In a less highly-charged atmosphere, the Spanish would have stuck to their recreational short-pass-and-move game, but the longer it failed to bear fruit, the less imaginative they became. The introduction of Jesus Navas gave the distributors (Xavi and Xabi) more options to the right and the team more width than the disappointing Silva had offered, but Navas' final pass was often poor, as was his unforgivably poor corner with the last kick of the game. Sergio Ramos had obviously not been as free to roam, but his final ball is often more telling. Not so on Wednesday night. The Spanish are already blaming bad luck (Xabi Alonso's pile-driver onto the bar) and referee Howard Webb, whom they quickly accused of incompetence. It's true that David Silva did look as though he was brought down in the area in the first half, and there are indications that Switzerland's goal should have been pulled up for offside before it ever ended up in the net, but these complaints ignore Derdiyok's run and shot onto the post and Iker Casillas' somewhat questionable posture in the chaotic lead-up to the Swiss goal. Why approach the attacker like a central defender - and a poor one at that (it was probably a penalty anyway), when he should surely have gone to ground laterally with his body, spreading himself across the striker's path? Easy to say now, but he's an experienced keeper. What was all that talk about Victor Valdes being better on the one-to-one? Unfortunately, hindsight is the weapon of journalists, not managers. Then again, it would be unwise to panic prematurely, to fly the flag at half-mast when there are still two extremely winnable games to play. By the looks of the Chile v Honduras game, any self-doubt that has crept into the squad should be dissipated by the balm of a more convincing performance (and win) against Honduras in Jo'burg on Monday evening. With six points Spain could still win the group, if they defeat Honduras more heavily than Switzerland manage to. The fear now, of course, is of meeting Group G's winners in the next round, but the way that Brazil performed against North Korea was hardly a show to set opponents' teeth chattering. Spain are still capable of beating anyone, and it is not as if they played badly against Switzerland. It's worth keeping some perspective as the hype begins to inevitably fly. They actually played some excellent stuff in the first half, but the Swiss concentrated hard on stopping them in the final third. The physical strength and height of the Swiss defence paid off because David Villa prefers the ball into feet - which means that his chief supplier, Xavi Hernandez, needs to be free of all shackles in the hole behind the forwards. He started well, but the longer the game went on, the more the Swiss seemed to cut off his lines of supply. Xabi Alonso was then restricted to the same pass every time, out to Navas. In came the cross, and a Swiss head always seemed to get it first. Villa is a wonderful player, but he's not a centre-forward who attacks high balls with any great conviction. Del Bosque should have brought on Fernando Llorente, to rough up the Swiss back line a little more. The other Fernanado (Torres) looked off the pace, over-running the ball on several occasions and missing a lobbed chanced that he would have put away in his sleep last season. And the Swiss did a good job on the fragile Andres Iniesta, roughing him up almost every time he ran with the ball. If Webb did anything wrong, it was his inability to protect the Spanish playmaker from the obvious intentions of his opponents. Pedro tried hard in his place, but it should surely have been Fabregas to take over from Iniesta. Statistically speaking as well, the result was a shock when you consider that Switzerland had never beaten Spain in eighteen previous outings. Spain won fifteen of them. This was also Spain's half century of World Cup games, and so a disappointing way to celebrate the landmark. But in the end, Spain just need to stay focused. They wouldn't be the first side to mess up their opening game but to still progress to the final stages, or even win. They didn't play badly. They failed, unusually, in the execution of the final pass, and were not quite aggressive enough in the final third. The defeat may even do them good, and focus them more ruthlessly on the games to come. Finally, on a personal note, Spain's defeat offers a morsel of compensation. Only last week, when I proposed to my family that I was about to purchase a 42" HD plasma flat-screen for the football fest to come, the proposal was unanimously howled down as a wilful waste of money. Bowing to democracy I succumbed, only to learn four days ago that the shop on the far side of town was announcing that they would return the purchase price in full of the TV I had set my heart on, in the event of Spain winning all their games. Perhaps they knew something I didn't.


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