When Spain fell to the hands of Switzerland in the opening match of World Cup 2010, the vultures suddenly appeared from the sky and circled around their “dying” carcass. No team has ever won the World Cup after losing its first match. The ghosts from yesteryear are rising from the dead and haunting this current team about their ancestors’ past failures. Previous entrenador Luis Aragonés ranted about Vicente del Bosque and indirectly undermined most of what Vicente del Bosque has done with this team. Although Spain has only made it to the quarterfinals after defeating 1-0 over Portugal in Cape Town yesterday, La Furia Roja’s form suggests that rising to the occasion will not be the same problem as it has in previous international competitions.
Spain’s only injury concern before their match against Portugal was Xabi Alonso’s sprained ankle he suffered against Chile, but del Bosque slotted him in the center of midfield after passing a late fitness test. Del Bosque saw no reason to change his starting eleven, but if he had any reservations about one of his players, it would have been Fernando Torres because of his erratic play in the group stage.
99% of the time, Torres would be an automatic starter, but still recovering from knee surgery in April, his lack of match sharpness became painfully obvious in his starts against Honduras and Chile when his first touch disappeared on him on numerous occasions, and his finishing would have the usual Nike T90 ball well off target, much less the unpredictable Adidas Jabulani ball.
After a strong first few minutes where he made threatening runs into the penalty area and curled a shot from the left side of the penalty box that forced a diving save from Eduardo at his far right post, Torres’ contributions were minimal. Fernando Llorente came in for Torres in the 58th minute, and after Llorente lit a second spark for the Spaniards after the hour mark, del Bosque might need to reconsider who plays alongside David Villa in the quarterfinals against Paraguay.
As for the other twenty-one players on the pitch, the eleven from Spain exhibited no sliver of the tentative attitude they displayed in the first twenty minutes against Chile, as they pinned Portugal’s eleven into their own half and peppered Eduardo’s goal with shot after shot, especially working the left wing. Portugal has used three different right backs in their four games (Paulo Ferreira, Miguel, and new Valencia signing Ricardo Costa), so the scouting report must have emphasized attacking this vulnerability.
Portugal manager Carlos Queiroz would not have worried about Spain’s possession or his team’s ability to organize themselves defensively because of their strong defensive record, one goal allowed in their last eleven competitive international matches to be more specific. Whether he tried to build his players’ confidence or he was delusional, he described the match against Brazil and his ultra-conservative gameplan as a “football feast” where Portugal attacked and Brazil defended. Using that same blueprint against Spain, Queiroz would have felt that Spain was falling right into his strategy.
And fall they did as Spain’s possession became ponderous, and Portugal felt more assured to throw some men forward in the counter-attack. Tiago popped an effort from twenty-five yards that Iker Casillas needed a second handle to slap away from an on-charging Hugo Almeida, Cristiano Ronaldo struck a dipping free kick from over forty yards that Casillas somewhat fumbled, and Almeida botched a header from a precise Raul Meireles cross that could have easily given Portugal that precious first goal. Spain did what they wanted, but Portugal did what they wanted better than Spain.
After the halftime break, the status quo reigned for the first fifteen minutes of the second half as Spain could not penetrate the defense, and Portugal remained dangerous on the counter. The match changed when Torres came out in the 58th minute and in stepped Fernando Llorente, the Athletic Bilbao target man making his first appearance in this World Cup. He immediately made an instant impact with his first touch when his diving header from de facto right winger Sergio Ramos’ cross forced a brilliant point-blank save from Eduardo.
Then the combination of FC Barcelona midfielders Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández with future Barcelona forward David Villa occurred with such Catalunyan flair that a picture diagram is necessary to complement the authorial description.
A one-two with Fernando Llorente gave Iniesta the space to dribble around the “D” to find Xavi coming back into an onside location. In no position to go towards goal, the indomitable Xavi used all the resources of his spatial-temporal reasoning to visualize David Villa’s diagonal run from the left corner of the penalty area and back flick Iniesta’s pass first-time into space, where Villa shot with his left foot to the left near post. Eduardo did extremely well to cover that area of goal and saved it with his feet; however, the rebound tracked directly back to Villa, and with his feathery touch, he lifted the ball over the sprawled Eduardo, kissing the underside of the crossbar and into goal.
When Spain forced Portugal to chase the game after Villa’s goal, A Selecção looked incapable of forming a cohesive attacking move. Carles Puyol and Joan Capdevila blocked their only two truly legitimate chances, and the double substitution of Pedro Mendes and Liédson for Simão Sabrosa and Pepe proved to do little for Portugal as Spain controlled the rest of the match. The only footnotes worth noting after Villa’s goal were Xabi Alonso’s yellow card, the first booking for Spain in the World Cup, David Villa’s stellar play, and Ricardo Costa’s red card after he supposedly elbowed Joan Capdevila, although replays showed little contact and Capdevila’s “writhing of pain” as he covered his face in apparent anguish.
Spain deserved to reach the quarterfinals, and with a gritty Paraguay side that will likely employ similar tactics as Portugal, the Spaniards should feel self-assured about performing well against Paraguay. David Villa looks to be the favorite in both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta control the midfield and keep possession for this Spain team, and the underrated back four closes down the ball very quickly when their opponents reach their own third.
For those who believe in numerology, Spain’s quarterfinal appearance marks the fourth time in the last seven World Cups where they have reached this stage of the tournament (every other World Cup since 1986), and each time, they failed to progress to the semifinals. So what is different about this team compared to those other Spanish teams that have flattered to deceive?
Capturing the 2008 European Championships cannot be overstated as a confidence building measure for a country that always produced talent but never fused them into a unified national team. The regionalism manifested in Spain has hindered the team in the past, as the chemistry never fit a team with such potential. Some tend to overrate unity and chemistry and propose that talent overcomes whatever problems occur in-house, but numerous examples such as Greece in Euro 2004, South Korea in World Cup 2002, and New Zealand in this year’s World Cup show that twenty-three players playing for one cause can be as powerful as a team littered with world-class players.
Vicente del Bosque will mull over the Fernando Torres question during these two rest days while the players train to see if he finds any slice of form to suggest that Torres is improving enough to warrant a start against Paraguay on Saturday. It takes a brave man to replace Torres with Fernando Llorente in the starting eleven, but for the betterment of the team, del Bosque must make this move to ensure Spain’s optimal lineup against Paraguay.
While Spain will likely defeat Paraguay whether Torres or Llorente starts, del Bosque should incorporate Llorente from the start to develop a rhythm with the other outfield players as a potential semifinal between either Argentina or Germany looms. Spain is peaking at the perfect time, and flying under the radar with Brazil and Argentina garnering most of the headlines, this is exactly the position that Spain wants and desires at this stage of the tournament.