Friday, June 25, 2010
Spain put early falterings in past
John Brewin, Loftus Versfeld Stadium
Spain will not now be joining the European talent drain from South Africa. Instead, the latest Euro exit is that of the Swiss, incapable of putting away a Honduran side that had looked among the tournament's worst.
• Chile 1-2 Spain
• Ball doubts Spain
• Del Bosque impressed by Chile
That Spanish opening defeat to the Swiss can be put to one side, despite its near-fatal effect on Spanish confidence. After his team had defeated Chile, manager Vicente Del Bosque admitted as much. "We have overcome a very difficult time," he said. "We were disturbed emotionally by defeat to Switzerland."
Now, with a place in the second round secured, the taciturn coach believes his team can now play with more "optimism". Before this match, and up until David Villa's goal, an air of considerable uncertainty had personified this Spain team. Del Bosque, despite a multitude of club successes at Real Madrid, does not seem to have the same hold over the team that Luis Aragones once had. And the former coach has become an unwelcome observer and rather critical commenter on his previous charges, working as he now does as an analyst for Al Jazeera and to much publicity back in Spain.
For the moment, though, Group H is won and Brazil have been avoided. Instead, Portugal, containing La Liga's most expensive player in Cristiano Ronaldo, are next and Del Bosque is barely celebrating them as next opponents. "There is no satisfaction when I think of Portugal rather than Brazil," he said. "They are both excellent teams."
Chile too had cause for celebration although, unlike the wild jubilation displayed by Ghana in losing to the Germans on Tuesday, they were measured in their back-slapping and bear-hugging. Qualification for the second round is a triumph for them but Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa is not one for self-aggrandising. Like the Ghanaians, Chile played in the latter stages of the game as if distracted by happenings elsewhere, in this case Bloemfontein. A goal conceded late on, and a Swiss strike, could have been fatal for them, though the Spanish themselves were on a form of sudden death: a draw may not have been enough for them. An uneasy detente was reached as proceedings drew to a close, and, as Bielsa put it, the "players conformed with the result instinctively".
South America now has a full set of five in the knock-outs though one of Brazil and Chile will perish after Ellis Park on Tuesday. With Spain still stuttering, Brazil are now overwhelming favourites but Bielsa himself did not think that they represent a significant step up from the Spanish. Before the match, their fans, whom he thanked for their "unconditional support", had already been in celebratory mood in the streets of Hatfield, a thriving area full of bars and cafes in which supporters were refreshing themselves all afternoon and soaking in the winter sun while singing songs that proclaimed the virtues of their narrowly-shaped nation.
Meanwhile, the Spanish contingent was less expansive, still fearing their own World Cup curse of underachievement was to strike again. Initially, their team looked similarly preoccupied as Chile, when they were not staging some ludicrously early time-wasting, posed a considerable threat with Alexis Sanchez their most potent weapon. As happened between Slovakia and Italy the previous day, the less fancied team settled the better but where the Italians had given way in a fit of inertia, Spain were able to rely on a man for the occasion.
David Villa's strike in the 24th minute was a study in coolness and control, as he lobbed stricken goalkeeper Claudio Bravo from fully 40 yards and from the left wing he often calls home when played alongside Fernando Torres.
Villa also provided the goal that should have taken the Spanish through with comfort when teeing up Andres Iniesta the chance to further confirm the importance of his return to the line-up. Back in tandem with Xavi, Spain's midfield took on a more settled look as a result of Iniesta's presence and he will take the plaudits alongside the irrepressible Villa for leading the way in Spain's mission becoming complete.
Torres, however, remains a huge cause for concern. After an initial period of looking like he may be back in his stride, his touch began to desert him and his withdrawal for Fabregas on the hour allowed his team to shore up midfield matters after Chile had struck back at the beginning of the second half through Rodrigo Millar. Del Bosque later revealed the worrying news that the Liverpool man had been complaining of muscular problems at the break.
Spain's second goal had also coincided with the sending off, for a second yellow card, of Marco Estrada. Despite their lessening of their scoring disadvantage via Millar's chipped goal, a lack of personnel did begin to tell on the Chileans, as Spain began to play the "one-touch game" that Del Bosque expects from his team. Previously, while fielding 11 against 11, Chile had not allowed Spain to play that possession game though conversely, Spain's goals both came somewhat on the break.
It all eventually proved enough for both teams, and, despite some twists and turns, Group H has ended up rather as expected. Bielsa may have claimed that the game changed on the dismissal of Estrada but, somewhere in the midst of his deep post-match analysis, he expressed his happiness. It was difficult to tell, such is his halting manner, but he did say that "I am delighted" and that this was a "job well done".
Spain, meanwhile, can put their early falterings put behind them. "We have accomplished our goal," Iniesta said with some relief. "My joy today is immense."
MAN OF THE MATCH - David Villa. Once again, the difference for the Spanish was this prolific forward who doubles as a left winger. His wondrous first-half goal turned his team's fortunes and he compounded their imminent progress by supplying a wonderfully-weighted ball for Andres Iniesta to stroke home. When Torres departed, there was still next to no lessening of the potency of Spain's attack.
SPAIN VERDICT: They were clearly nervous in the initial stages but they were rescued from such emotions by Villa. Thereafter, and despite the Chilean goal at the start of the second half, they were comfortable and eased into the next round.
CHILE VERDICT: Bielsa is a believer in attacking football and his team were much the more enterprising in the initial stages. But Villa's goal changed things, as perhaps more seriously did the sending-off of Estrada. His subsequent suspension, and that of both Waldo Ponce and Gary Medel, may have just made the task of Brazil even more difficult than it clearly already was.
WHEREVER, WHATEVER: Shakira's 'Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)' is inescapable to those of us who spend a great deal of time in World Cup 2010 stadia. A jubilant Spanish journalist, who brought an unwelcome vuvuzela into the press box, was grooving away with some stewards at half-time. Another mainstay in Beyonce's 'Single Ladies' provoked much the same reaction. These dirges shall not be missed after the tournament's end.