Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Woe for Ronaldo, joy for Spain
As predicted by many, the game ended 1-0, but as foreseen by very few, Cristiano Ronaldo was an irrelevance. How many times have you read that last clause in your lifetime? Spain were okay, once again, without scaling any heights, but in the end they didn't really need to.
• Brassell: No 'Plan B' for Portugal
• Destination SA: Red rules
• Brassell: Queiroz can't find killer line
• Del Bosque in confident mood
• Queiroz pleased despite exit
• Photo gallery
Once Vicente Del Bosque finally realised, on the hour, that his rather strange decision to play Fernando Torres was not paying off, Spain shifted up a gear and within four minutes had taken the lead. David Villa once again did the business, skipping away from his marker (just onside) to take a great backheel pass from Xavi, to score at the second attempt.
The game seems less about the winners than the losers, given that Carlos Queiroz's promise to attack Spain was only partially fulfilled. In the first half they surrendered possession to Spain but looked smart on the break, and resembled an almost impenetrable forest of green and white at the back. When they did get forward, Spain looked short of personnel at the back and there were a couple of hairy moments - but the only time that Ronaldo threatened was from a free kick that dipped viciously in the air and confounded Iker Casillas' desperate clutching action. Blame the ball. Everyone else does.
From then onwards Portugal seemed to think that they could snatch it, that Spain would succumb in the same way as they did against Switzerland, but that they would not have to change their tactical approach to make this happen.
The idea was a reasonable one, since Spain were looking rather one-dimensional - if that is possible to say - in their characteristic short possession game. But their problems in the first half, however, hardly required rocket science to fathom. Torres started well because the Portuguese defence had not had time to warm up, but almost every time he touched the ball thereafter he lost control or was too slow to make decisions.
He was trying to do too much with the ball, as if willing himself to return to form, to show some sharpness. His brain was working perfectly well but his body wasn't responding. It was actually quite painful to watch, and the last thing a team needs in a vital World Cup match is a player who is trying to play himself in, who is self-obsessing. With Villa hanging out on the left, the waves of attacks though the middle kept breaking down on the shores of poor Torres, who really should have been on the bench.
When Fernando Llorente finally came on, his physical presence immediately bothered the Portuguese defence. Up until then everything had gone to plan and they had doused the Spanish flames quite easily. It's difficult to say whether Llorente, a player with little experience at this level, would be better starting against Paraguay in the quarter-finals, but if I were Del Bosque I'd give it a go. Torres might even be better as the substitute, because by coming on fresher against tiring defenders his own lack of sharpness will be less evident. Go on Vicente. You heard it from Soccernet.
Portugal actually caused Spain far fewer problems than did Chile in the previous game. It's difficult to understand where Queiroz learned his master plan from, but it certainly never came from being understudy to Sir Alex Ferguson.
Plan A was fine - use your back four and midfield defensive shield to crowd the Spanish out and snuff out their final passes, but once you've conceded, where do you go? Well you try to involve your best player (Ronaldo), but there seemed to be no plan in place to do that.
Raul Meireles and Hugo Almeida looked useful in the first half when they found some space on the flanks, but in the second half it was only in the last five minutes that there seemed to be any urgency to the Portuguese cause. It was a curiously one-paced performance, lacking a Plan B.
What do we do now Carlos? Carlos couldn't say. And when Ronaldo dropped off deeper to look for the ball himself, Sergio Busquets went with him and Gerard Pique played a higher line, just in case. And anyway, Spain just kept the ball for most of the final half hour, something that they are very good at. Portugal seemed to have the players to do a lot more, but were oddly short of ideas. The fact that they fly home having failed to score in three of their four matches takes on the look of a bottle half empty, despite their impressive defensive statistics. Spain, meanwhile, march on.
Are they getting better, with plenty in reserve for the hurdles ahead? Paraguay cannot be dismissed lightly, and will be treated with the utmost respect, but Spain have a definite eye on the semi-final, where they will meet the winners of Argentina v Germany. Whatever happens between the latter two, a clash with Spain at that stage looks an awesome prospect.
Everything is still intact, save the creaking kid Torres. Andres Iniesta and Xavi were good nuisance value, without ever hitting top notch, and Sergio Ramos, so often criticised for a lack of discipline, was simply awesome on the right. There is no need for Jesus Navas, unless that Paraguayan channel gets subsequently more offensive. At the moment, teams are not attacking down their own left-hand flank because Ramos is too busy occupying them with his own cavalry charges. He's a bit too desperate to get on the scoresheet, but he does deserve a goal for his efforts and almost bagged one tonight.
There are also plenty of alternatives to simply replacing Torres with Llorente. Villa can move into a more central position, and Del Bosque could bring back the left-sided David Silva, or finally opt for playing Cesc Fabregas in an advanced position behind Villa, drifting either side of Xavi. Pedro is another alternative if Paraguay prove tough to break down. Spain still look a little unsure of themselves when high balls are swung into their area, but the old warhorse Carles Puyol finally got it together and had a much better second half.
Whatever, the main point is surely that Spain's morale and self-confidence is back where it was before the early stages of the tournament began to nag at their self-belief, with Luis Aragones firing his bullets from the sidelines and the national press quiet but obviously tense. Paraguay's confidence is also sky-high, but Spain are getting into their stride. It's looking good again. Bring 'em on.