Saturday, June 26, 2010
Depending on David
So it's Portugal on Tuesday night, the 'Iberian derby'. Spain have avoided Brazil (and vice-versa), but further progress is by no means assured for Vicente Del Bosque's semi-merry men. They will have to do better if they are to reach their first-ever World Cup final.
• Chile 1-2 Spain
• Brewin in Pretoria
• Del Bosque impressed by Chile
With a bit of individual stuff, a lot of X-rated bully-boy tactics and a quick short-passing game not unlike Spain's, Chile looked the better side for long spells of the first half, and yet still went in for their half-time cuppas 2-0 down. What exactly is Spain's plan if they don't have the ball so much? Xavi Hernandez didn't look altogether sure in the first half, and Chile's Mark Gonzalez should really have been the first person on the scoresheet.
As it was, it took the man who lives 150 yards from where I'm writing this report in Spain (Claudio Bravo) to gift Spain their first goal, although it has to be said that it was no easy chance, when the ball suddenly arrived at the weaker left foot of Villa. The more you replay the goal, the better it looks. Sheer technical brilliance, allied to speed of thought. But it took Bravo to unpick his own defence. Up to that point, it wasn't entirely clear that Spain were going to do it.
It also came against the run of play, and that's not how Spain plan things. Chile were expected to be Spain's toughest opponent yet, but three of their players were not supposed to be the outstanding ones on the pitch - Jean Beausejour, Jorge Valdivia and Alexis Sanchez. Mark Gonzalez wasn't bad either, but the sending off of Marco Estrada - probably harsh for that particular incident but not so when you consider some of the unpunished butchery he had indulged in up to that moment - changed the face of the game. Granted, Chile calmed down in the second half, cut out the hacking stuff on obvious orders from Bielsa who didn't want them to be facing Brazil with half the side suspended, and sat back at 1-2, as the manual gestures from the dug-out continued to relay the stalemate between Switzerland and Honduras. They even took off the one player who looked as though he might unhinge Spain - the excellent Sanchez, and any scouts from Europe's big clubs must be very tempted now to write him into their 'Recommend this guy' list.
What were the plus marks for Spain? Well, without Jesus Navas they looked more balanced again, more compact, although in the second half Chile renounced attack almost completely after their goal, and Joan Capdevila must have been celebrating inside when manager Bielsa took off Sanchez half way thought the second half. A strange decision, since he was the only player keeping Spain on the watch, on the semi-back-foot. Once he'd gone, it was the signal for the evening recess, time to relax and have a smoke behind the bike-sheds. It was an unsubtle message from Chile that they would settle for second place in the group, and that they would stop kicking lumps out of the Spanish midfield.
This needs to be mentioned because it complicates a thorough analysis of Spain's performance. If you sit back on the half-way line as Chile did, and allow Spain to pass it casually among themselves, then they will do exactly that - pass it among themselves. It's not necessarily good practice for the game to come on Tuesday night, against Cristiano Ronaldo and company. Ronaldo aside, Portugal have an impressive defensive record, and will not cave in easily.
It's beginning to look as though Spain are becoming a tad dependent on David Villa, for several seasons Europe's best and most consistent striker. They won the European title because of the twin threat that he and Fernando Torres posed, but now the latter is absent, both in body and spirit. It was worth bringing him along in case, but he's obviously not up for it. He helped in the build-up to the second goal - expertly begun and finished by the wonderful Andres Iniesta, but the Liverpool man generally looked off the pace again, unsure of his touch and never really threatening the Chilean rearguard. The idea that his mere presence frees up space for Villa is the new urban myth of the Spanish press, desperate to believe in their hero. Torres is a great player, but he's not fit, and he's not match-sharp.
Meanwhile, Cesc Fabregas never gets time to settle in and to run things the way he does at Arsenal. With Xabi Alonso having limped off, Fabregas should have been handed the baton in the centre, with Xavi falling off deep. As it was, Fabregas hung around vaguely in the inside-right position, rarely influencing the play. He also looked a bit frustrated, a bit out of sorts, as if he were unsure of what his role in the side actually is. That's because he is unsure, and so is everybody else.
When and if Spain finally fall in this World Cup, the criticism may well emerge that there were too many foremen, and not enough hod-carriers. It's nobody's fault - but rather the whims of fate that can condemn Fabregas to the bench and players like Mikel Arteta to not even be considered for the national side. Had they been from a different, less luxurious generation, it might have been a different story for them.
Spain need to get Fabregas into the system, and they need to forget about Torres, if they want to win the World Cup. They'll need to blood the big physical striker Fernando Llorente too, before long. His presence would also free David Villa, and the Athletic Bilbao man is much fitter than Torres. Spain need to mix and match a bit more, and to cut out the metronomic stuff if it isn't working its juju. Jesus Navas, oddly enough, helps to do that, but he should be a latter-stages player, thrown in to ruffle up tired defences. Then he can be devastating.
There's nothing enormously wrong about Spain, but it's not 100% right either. Villa's movement, link play and finishing is so gilt-edged that it would only take an off-day (and we all have those) to suddenly find Spain wanting. You get the distinct feeling that the midfield, for all its brilliance, would suddenly have fewer places to go. It's an uncomfortable truth, but one that the squad, despite its obvious candidature for glory, seems unable to face up to.
From now on, there will be no more sides with the indiscipline of Chile and the weaknesses of Honduras. Now it gets serious. If they get past Portugal, you never know. But I, for one, am not convinced. The World Cup will be won by the side with the most alternatives in all departments. As of this evening, I wouldn't include Spain in that description.