By Greg Simpson
With four minutes of extra time remaining on the clock, the score still deadlocked at nil apiece, and the lottery of a penalty shoot-out looming large, the ball found itself to the left hand side of Spain’s attacking third. Fernando Torres whipped in a cross, which the Dutch failed to clear, the ball bobbles up to Cesc Fabregas on the edge of the box, who stabs a pass to the right side of the goal mouth where an unmarked Andres Iniesta volleys a low shot, past the outstretched hand of Maarten Stekelenburg, and into the bottom left corner of the net.
Four years ago, in front of 85,000 vuvuzela blowing fans in the city of Johannesburg, this sequence of play won Spain its first World Cup and consigned the Netherlands to three-time losing finalists (still one less than Germany). It finally ended a disappointing history for Spain in football’s biggest tournament, where the quarter finals had been their best finish since a solitary fourth in 1950.
This victory ensured Spain, like the great France side from a decade earlier, became joint European and World Champions. The ‘La Rojas’ would then go on to further cement their legacy as arguably the greatest national side in the history of International Football, by becoming the first team to win three straight major tournaments, and the first team to defend their European title two years later. The manner of the 3 tournament victories was equally as impressive; 15 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss, 32 goals scored and a mere 6 conceded.
So this leads us through to the City of Rio in 2014. Can Spain join the great Pele inspired Brazil side from the 60’s, and the Italian side of the 30’s, as the only countries to defend their World Cup? Winning four straight major tournaments is almost unimaginable, and no European side has ever won the Cup in the ‘Americas’, but I believe La Roja can most definitely achieve this remarkable feat in Rio.
The chorus of doubters has grown as the tournament has approached. They ultimately qualified in top spot from their group without losing a match, despite two draws against France and Finland. They also conceded the least amount of goals in qualifying – a measly three. However, their destruction at the hands of Brazil in last year’s Confederations Cup final in front of a partisan crowd in Rio’s Maracana stadium, still burns brightly in the memories of the doubters. Let’s not forget their humiliating exit to the USA in the 2009 Confederations Cup, a result which saw their record equaling run of 35 matches unbeaten end, but which had no bearing on their ability to lift the Cup the following year.
The doubt has also surely grown due to a perceived decline in the level of domination by a Barcelona side that, 3 years ago were being hailed as the greatest club side in the history of Football. I say ‘perceived’, as Barca won the league with a record points total in 2012/13 – cracking the 100 point mark for the first time in their history, and the 15 point margin back to Real Madrid was a record in modern La Liga. They were then one goal away from back to back league victories in the final match of this season. Sure, ultimately they finished trophyless, but the impact of losing their record-setting manager from last season – Tito Vilanova – to a fatal illness, may have impacted their consistency from last year into this season, under the new guidance of Tata Martino.
However, It’s at the Champions League level of competition, where the real doubts about the ‘Spanish way’ have been sown. Barcelona, having made the semi-finals last year, were humiliated at the hands of Bayern Munich over two legs, and then beaten again in this year’s quarter finals by the La Liga Champions to be – Atletico Madrid. It wasn’t so much the individual results – losses in knock-out Cup competitions can happen to the best, it was the fact that a new style of football was making its mark at the highest level of competition; a style which suddenly seemed to make the once all-conquering, possession-based ‘Tiki-Taka’ look a little ponderous, one-dimensional and lack penetration.
Bayern and Dortmund last year, and Real and Atletico this year, have been immensely successful applying a style of football, while all differing slightly, that was almost the opposite of Barcelona’s, and ultimately, the Spanish national sides, possession based strategy. The basis of which centred on hard working, solid defensive units – see Bayern last year and Atletico this, but also a mixture of high octane pressing, especially in the case of Dortmund & Atletico. When Barca were at their best under Pep Guardiola, they pressed equally as much, however the difference between these sides and Barca, is what occurs once the ball is back in possession. Quick transitions, via fast counter attacks, would see more direct ball movement at pace, from one end of the field to the other. Fast wide men like Robben, Ribery, Di Maria, Bale, Reus et al, were critical to the success of this strategy. Basically, possession didn’t matter so much, but power, pace and a directness of movement, once in possession does. Bayern reverted to a tiki-taka style under new manager Pep Guadiola this year, and were destroyed by the rampaging counter attacking of Real Madrid in the semi-finals. Similarly, Brazil, with their abundance of solid defensive midfielders, and fast wide men in Neymar and Bernard, took Spain apart in this manner in last year’s final of the Confederations Cup.
So I feel this is where the challenge lies at this World Cup for Spain – a battle of styles and tactics. Not only theirs versus the opposition, but also whether they can tweak and adapt and bring some flexibility and evolution to their own game plan. The team is not ‘aging’ as such, as many critics are voicing. Their central talisman Xavi only really falls into that category at 34. Most of the squad are at what many consider a peak age of around 26-30. In fact, their average age of 28.24 is actually lower than Brazil and Argentina – both of whom are touted as their biggest rivals for the Cup.
Vincent Del Bosque has taken Barca’s Tiki-Taka blueprint to the extreme since taking over Spain, to the point of not even starting a traditional centre forward in their last major tournament triumph, instead using Cesc Fabregas in a ‘false 9’ role at the head of their midfield. Whether this was more a solution to the ‘Cesc Fabregas problem’, that Barca have also been experiencing, as in – where to fit him in on the field, or more a lack of faith in the aging, and out of form Fernando Torres and David Villa. The ‘front man’ issue has been resolved (fitness pending) at this tournament, by the defection of Brazil born striker Diego Costa to the Spanish side. The man who spearheaded Atletico Madrid to the La Liga title and Champions League Final. Spain now has a ‘new dimension’ in Costa – tall, physical, direct and downright nasty – he can potentially add new impetus and direction in their attacking third. His clinical finishing ability on the end of their midfield creativity could be frightening for opposition defences.
Tactics apart, Del Bosque has another huge decision to ponder before Spain’s opening match against their 2010 finalists – the Netherlands. A decision that could ultimately be as important, and as divisive, as Louis Aragones decision to dump the legendary Raul from the national side in 2006. Will he start the tried and tested Barcelona axis of Xavi and Iniesta in the centre of his formation, or will he drop Xavi for the ‘new Xavi’, in Atletico’s youthful and talented Koke. Koke is one of the ‘hottest’ prospects in Spanish football right now, and his powerful engine, excellent work rate and defensive contributions, combined with an equally impressive creative side, could be exactly what Spain needs if it is to combat fast counter-attacking rivals in the big matches. It’s a massive call, and one that might not go down so well in Catalonia.
Del Bosque is an incredibly smart manager, and the performances of Real Madrid and Atletico will not have gone un-noticed. In other tournaments he has pushed central creative midfielders into wider positions, including Iniesta. However, by starting Costa upfront, he could also start Pedro wide – a more traditional winger who likes to make runs in behind the fullbacks. With Koke pulling the strings in the middle and linking with his Ateltico team mate up front, this Spain team could really tweak their style and tactics and spring some surprises with their flexibility and directness. Proving they are more than a one-trick pony. Del Bosque could then call in Xavi, Fabregas and co, and close out games via reverting to their Tiki Taka DNA. Ironically, It’s always been a great form of defence. They are big risky calls to make while in the tournament proper, but ones I think will provide a boost of freshness to a slightly stale and predictable team. The greatest sides never stand still and always look to evolve.
When you consider names such as Fabregas, Cazorla and Mata may not even start, it’s amazing the depth in talent Del Bosque has to work with. He may have lost the legendary Carles Puyol in the heart of his defence, but in Sergio Ramos, he has one of the most in-form players on the planet, and a growing leader for both club and country. Atletico’s Juanfran could also be a new face at right back and is a tireless defender who will ensure Spain’s defence is as strong as any side at the tournament. Along with Costa and Koke, he would provide the national side with a big influence from the new Spanish champions.
While nowhere near as clear cut as 2010, Spain deserves to be favourites and no.1 seeds heading into the Cup. Overall, I actually feel their squad is more balanced and talented than in 2010. They have some major challengers this time, but it would take a brave person to bet against them creating history and exorcising a few demons at the Maracana Stadium on July 13th.
Let the games begin.
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