Spain looking to break down barriers
Tuesday night in Cape Town promises to be an interesting one, with Spain and Portugal meeting again for the first time since the latter sent the former home in the European Championships back in 2004, in Portugal of course. A lot of water has passed under the proverbial since then, but as the untranslatable phrase goes here in Spain, El morbo está servido - something like 'You won't want to miss this one'. Well, you get the picture.
Perhaps we should start on the bench. Back in June 2003, in 'The night of the long knives' in the restaurant Meson Txistu in Madrid, as Real Madrid celebrated their 29th league title, Vicente Del Bosque was informed that his management services were no longer required - after four seasons in which he had won the club two league titles and two Champions Leagues.
Florentino Perez's dismissal of one of the club's most distinguished servants prompted captain Fernando Hierro to brand his president a 'Nazi' in an evening that changed the face of Spanish football and ushered in a new image-conscious paradigm, led by Real Madrid. Del Bosque was seen as old school, solid and dependable but with the sort of hang-dog looks and media dysfunction that clashed with Perez's glamorous new galactic dawn.
Perez's lieutenant, Jorge Valdano, brought in Carlos Queiroz, a smoother Armani type who was making himself a reputation as Sir Alex Ferguson's assistant and who looked the part, at the very least. He lasted a year, and now occupies the post of Portugal manager. Was Madrid's loss Portugal's gain? I wouldn't like to say.
Some ten metres to his side on Tuesday night, Vicente Del Bosque will be wearing a suit, but it still won't fit him quite as well as the one that Queiroz will be sporting. But suits aside, it's interesting that it has come to this, seven years on. Del Bosque, as is his wont, will bear the Portuguese boss no grudges, but he will no doubt be quietly amused that his squad is considered among the globe's most attractive sides while the Portuguese are basing their candidature for further progress on their defensive solidity - the only side so far to have not conceded a single goal.
It seems to be a supreme irony that the side to boast the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo in its ranks should be worrying Spain on the grounds that they are hard to score against. Not only that, but they have now gone 18 matches without defeat, the last time they succumbed being the 6-2 stuffing at the hands of Brazil, in the early days of Queiroz's far from happy baptism. As a further statistic to make the Spanish sweat, they've only conceded once in 11 games, to Cameroon. Spain are finding it hard to score in this World Cup. Fancy a simplistic conclusion? I didn't think you did.
The prize is a quarter-final slot against the winners of the Paraguay vs Japan game, and at the cost of sounding patronising, that eventual game looks pretty winnable. But first the Iberian derby. The Spanish come into the game with lots of smiles for the journalists despatched to South Africa, but with several worries nonetheless. Perhaps the strangest one is the mouth of Luis Aragones, the man who brought the team its first trophy since 1964 and who has distinguished himself in the past few days by taking pot-shots at the squad he once trained, earning himself national rebuke as a result. This is most odd, given that the Spanish could not spell 'consensus' even if you threatened them with all sorts of horrible punishments. Aragones has only said what most people think - that the team has not yet performed to its potential (or to its standards of two years ago in the European Championships) and that Portugal are well-equipped to win the game. That sounds like a fairly feasible analysis to me, and yet the Spanish sports tabloids are up in arms, as though old Luis were guilty of letting down the side, of threatening the squad's brittle morale.
The Spanish press (Aragones has been firing his bullets from the safer confines of Al Jazeera and Portuguese television) have clearly come to some sort of tacit agreement for this tournament, which consists of almost zero criticism, very little analysis, and absolutely no suggestion that anything is remotely awry. This is unprecedented, and although one would be reluctant to see a return to the usual sniping across the trenches, the unanimity and the tranquillity oozing from the Spanish camp seems a trifle false, a tad forced.
Del Bosque dealt with his predecessor's critiques in his usual disarming fashion, but the lack of substance to his arguments suggested that he might have secretly agreed. Aragones complained that Spain had lacked aggression, that they had not quite attained the speed of passing and movement of which they are capable, although he pulled back from giving his opinion as to why. But he never said that they had played badly, which indeed they haven't. They are the side who have had most shots on goal, and they have tried to stay faithful to their pass-and-move philosophy, despite the occasional drawbacks. Xabi Alonso is fit to play, and so the debate as to his replacement now seems stymied. Pique and Puyol will probably enjoy the cover of Sergio Busquets in order to neutralise the threat of Ronaldo, unless he moves out right to see if he can exploit the alleged weaknesses of Joan Capdevila.
Personalising the issue in terms of goals, David Villa is a much more successful predator for Spain than Ronaldo for Portugal, having scored an astonishing 40 in 61 games - a statistic that contrasts markedly with Ronaldo's 23 in 75. It may be more a case of the service than the actual striker, but if that rings true then Spain are surely the favourites, despite their opponent's recent record. Portugal should be worrying about the fact that their record will be broken some time, and that the most likely person to do that at present is the excellent Villa. Whether Torres will play is still a matter of debate, although Del Bosque has hinted that he will start, despite his lack of form and sharpness. Cesc Fabregas, also accused of a lack of bite, will be wondering why he came along if he is not used to pick open the world's most impressive defence at this juncture.
And the ref? The Spanish are unhappy at the prospect of Hector Baldassi, the Argentine who allegedly favoured the Italians when the Spanish lost in the Under-20 World Cup, especially given the fact that if Argentina defeat Germany in the quarter-finals they will be the rivals of the winners of this game - always assuming that either of them reach the semis. But the Spanish love their conspiracy theories. Life just wouldn't be the same without them.
All in all, it's a game whose outcome is difficult to predict. Spain's defence looked nervous against the first decent attacking side (Chile) they faced. Portugal have a decent midfield and plenty of threat up front, quite apart from Ronaldo. Spain will have to make their possession game work to prise open the Portuguese, seemingly confident after their goal-fest against the North Koreans but rather more subdued in the light of their failing to score in their other two games - admittedly tough ones. But they have emerged intact from the Group of Death, and Spain have crept rather unconvincingly from a theoretically much easier group.
Maybe it all starts to change now, and the true colours will assert themselves, meaning a Spanish win. The bookmakers seem to think so, although the odds on offer are hardly overwhelming. I'd rather not commit myself, but the game looks like being a low-scoring, perhaps tense affair. The winner will subsequently fancy themselves for a shot at the final, and for good reason. Can't wait myself. I just hope the game lives up to its billing.