Sid Lowe reviews Spain’s serene progress to South Africa (part two)
Part one can be found here
One columnist admitted that he “missed” the fun and games of the Luis Aragones era and another complained that, while Aragones turned every squad get-together into a circus, with Del Bosque there was calm normality, without compromising on the style and results that – by the end – Aragones’ team achieved.
In fact, what was most “normal” of all was the results. Tumbleweed blew past where once there were furious dialectical battles driven by poor results. On one hour-long debate show, a pundit started to whinge about how Cesc Fabregas should play more for the national team.
So he was asked if he’d drop Xabi Alonso to put him in. No, he said. Andres Iniesta? No. Xavi? No. Marcos Senna? No. David Silva? “Maybe we’re just debating for the hell of it,” he conceded. “Everything’s going so well.” Spain had just inflicted Belgium’s worst defeat in 25 years.
Besides, three days later Fabregas did play. And he scored and played wonderfully. But he was not alone. Del Bosque made changes and yet the result stayed the same. Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata got their chances – and both scored. It was typical of how things are going.
What alterations have been carried out have been done so smoothly as to alter nothing and that has bought the coach credit. Gerard Pique came into the squad and performed as if he’d been there for years, even adding two goals; Osasuna full-back Nacho Monreal was called up and no one complained; barely a word was said when Athletic Bilbao’s Fernando Llorente (as opposed to Joseba Llorente of Villarreal) became part of the squad.
And as for the Raul debate, it’s been forgotten by all but the most myopic of Raulistas.
Everything is so, well, normal. Great results and performances are just what happens and people have to some extent stopped noticing. It is a measure of just how successful Spain have become, how consistently excellent their performances have been, that so little fuss was made about them, how few arguments there were. And that is the thing, of course. Take a step back and what makes Spain extraordinary is the sheer relentlessness of their success.
Joint world record
When they were beaten by USA in the Confederations Cup semi-final it was their first defeat in 36 games – a joint world record. They had won Euro 2008 in incontestable style under Aragones, and Del Bosque had picked up where his predecessor had left off. Under him, Spain have won 17 of 18 matches and their record in qualifying stands eight out of eight, with 21 scored and just two conceded. Only Wayne Rooney has scored more than David Villa in group games.
However, one nagging doubt remains: have Spain beaten any really great sides since the European Championship? With the exception of England – beaten 2-0 in a friendly in Seville – it is tempting to say no. But, off the back of their success at Euro 2008, results do make a powerful case to present them as favourites in South Africa. And it’s not just about the results. Everything has all been done in style, too, with a confidence, a swagger and a conviction – and one that hints at the fact that this side is even better than the one that beat Germany in Vienna.
As one columnist put it, Spain’s destruction of Belgium was a retort, a message “for all of those who think it’s not possible to play like the angels…for those who think of football as a defensive pursuit…for the Taliban of the tactics board…for the coaches who lock away their creative players…for those who don’t like beautiful football”. He would say that, of course, but he had a point.
Even defeated Belgium goalkeeper Jean-Francois Gillet enjoyed it.
“Getting beaten by Spain enriches you, it allows you to see things that you never normally see on the pitch,” he said. “It must be great fun to play for them. They have great control of the ball, they move it extraordinarily fast, and everyone runs. It’s very hard to make them struggle at all because they have the ball the whole time.
“With the football they play, they’re capable of anything.”