Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Spanish still basking in success a year after World Cup triumph

In the summer of 2011 it is easy to look back at events of a year earlier as having a certain amount of inevitability. However, on the rollercoaster ride that La Furia Roja took the country on for a month last summer, the final result seemed anything but.

In hindsight it was obvious, even pre-tournament, that Spain were the best side in the competition. Seven of the side that started in Johannesburg last July also started as Barcelona cruised to Champions League glory in May. They had a £50 million striker on the bench and another playmaker soon to move in the region of €40 million alongside him. And yet, in a tournament which surprised without ever really enthralling, the final outcome was always in doubt.

Indeed Spain had been the victim of arguably the biggest surprise of all. Luckily for Vicente Del Bosque’s men their bad day at the office came on their opening gambit, early enough for a recovery to be made. Switzerland’s 1-0 victory in their first game shocked the world but crucially not the Spaniard’s faith in their style of play.

Following the Switzerland defeat though, changes were made. A move to a more conventional 4-3-3 with Fernando Torres through the middle pushed David Villa to a role cutting in from the left-side. A role that would prove decisive time and again as the competition developed.

Order was soon restored and Villa was again in the hunt for the Golden Boot, his two goals were enough to see off Honduras, but a more daunting task awaited in the form of Chile. Marcelo Bielsa’s side had been one of the tournament’s most enterprising and successful sides, heading into the game against Spain they were one of only four sides with a 100% record from their two games. With Spain needing to win to guarantee qualification, it was Chile who started brightest. The South Americans intense pressing disrupted Spain’s fluent tiki-taka passing game.

But on the half-hour another moment of Villa magic changed the course of the game and his side’s tournament, scoring from just beyond halfway as Real Sociedad goalkeeper Claudio Bravo had scampered from his goal to deny Torres. Soon after Andres Iniesta added a second, an eventual 2-1 victory good enough to secure qualification and top spot in Group H.

Next up was an Iberian derby with Portugal and a meeting with some familiar faces. The Real Madrid trio of Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho started for a Portuguese side that more than held its own in the first 45 minutes. The second, however, was a lesson on the dual advantage of possession football. Spain pushed and probed and eventual broke through. Again it was Villa cutting in from the left to finish high beyond a despairing Ricardo. Then, with fully half an hour still to play, Portugal couldn’t get near the ball. As they got more desperate, the midfield quarter of Xavi Hernandez, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets hid the ball in triangles, going left and right till all Portuguese resistance was broken.

On paper the quarter-final with Paraguay was an easier tie, in practice it was anything but. Again, Spain controlled the ball but without making the breakthrough in the opening half. Indeed, had the assistant referee not wrongly flagged when Hercules’ Nelson Valdez was in an onside position, they could have been behind.

In a crazy 60 seconds after the break, both sides missed a penalty before Del Bosque swung the game in favour of his side again with decisive introductions from the bench. Cesc Fabregas and Pedro Rodriguez were brought on and both had a role in the winning goal. No prizes for guessing it was Villa who applied the finishing touch.

By this point Spain had already made history. For the first time they had made it to the semi-finals of a World Cup, but this was not the landmark this squad had its eyes on. The generation that had broken 44 years of disappointment at Euro 2008 was determined to go two steps further. Their next opponents, Germany, provided a welcome reminder of what they had achieved two years previously in the final in Vienna.

The binary code nature of Spain’s results continued with another 1-0 win, but this was their most impressive showing to date.

Del Bosque showed his bravery again in dropping Torres for Pedro who hadn’t started a competitive international before. It was another inspired choice as the Canarian stretched the German backline with his pace and trickery. Again the goal didn’t come early, but when Carles Puyol met Xavi’s corner with 15 minutes to go with a bullet header there was no way back for the Germans.

A new winner of the World Cup was guaranteed, Holland – who hadn’t lost a competitive game in nearly two years – would be Spain’s opponents in the final.

One interesting factor in these two sides meeting for the first time in a competitive international in the biggest game of all, was that this Spanish side was much more emblematic of the great Dutch teams of the 70s. The Barcelona spine of Del Bosque’s team had been brought through La Masia, the club’s academy. The man who had implemented the passing, possession philosophy behind La Masia - Johann Cruyff.

The difference in philosophy between Holland past and present couldn’t have been clearer as Bert Van Marwijk’s side set out to bully Spain. Nigel De Jong’s kung-fu kick on Alonso has become an unforgettable image of the final, but all over the park the Dutch set out to disrupt the Spaniards flow in an aggressive manner. Indeed had Howard Webb not been the referee who knows how many players Holland would have finished with?

Eventually they were reduced to ten men in extra time when Johnny Heitinga saw red, and just over five minutes later the endearing moment of the 2010 World Cup in all Spanish hearts arrived.

Fabregas, again introduced as a sub, collected Rafael Van Der Vaart’s attempted clearance on the edge of the box and laid the ball through for Iniesta to fire home the most important goal in Spanish football history.

The party lasted long into the night, month and now even a year later it retains a warm glow of pride for a country which off the field has endured a difficult 12 months.

And in a football sense at least, the success shows no sign of stopping for Spain. Last month the Under-21s won the European Championships and the senior side will be prohibitive favourites to repeat their victory in the same competition next summer in Poland and Ukraine.

No matter how much joy or heartbreak is come though, July 11, 2010 will always bring a smile to Spanish faces.

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