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La Roja steals France’s crown of dominance

Vicente del Bosque's Spain are looking increasingly like world champions. But can they maintain this kind of form into the summer?


Spain has conquered Europe; now the world awaits. Photo: futbolwallpapers.

Not even a partial strike by Spanish state broadcaster RTVE could prevent the latest triumph for Spain’s national football team from being seen by the masses – it eventually proved to be the most-watched game in the station’s history. The 2-0 win against France in Paris underlined the notion that there seems to be little that can stop Vicente del Bosque’s La Roja at the moment. That said, an anaemic France offered very little to recommend Raymond Domenech’s tenure at the helm of a badly listing team that was comprehensively sunk by a nation that had not won on French turf since 1968. Luis Aragonés found the net that day in a 3-1 win, and Del Bosque’s predecessor left the incumbent a group of players that are the envy of every international manager.

A rare start for Arsenal captain Cesc Fàbregas in place of Xavi Hernandez, who has just returned from an injury layoff, was a telling indication of the wealth of talent at Del Bosque’s disposal. In any other international team, Fabregas’ first-choice status would be unequivocal. Spain, though, has had the fortune to be blessed with a true “golden generation”, a cliché often used but rarely warranted in football. That these players so demoralized the last remnant of the 1998 World Cup-winning squad, Thierry Henry, was indicative of the shift of power between the neighbouring countries and of the schism between Spain, in its prime, and France, in a temporary but marked decline. “It’s nice to watch Spain on television, but it’s impossible to get the ball when you play them,” remarked Henry after the game with a distinct air of découragement.

But what will Del Bosque have gleaned from an ultimately straightforward soirée in Paris as the World Cup countdown continues apace? The swift answer would be very little, given the circumstances surrounding the match. Henry, France’s favorite son for so long and the toast of world football at Arsenal, is a shadow of the player who won the Golden Boot in 2004 and 2005. He was received less than cordially by the Saint-Denis crowd, and jeered from the pitch – a reaction France can expect to receive in South Africa from nations sympathetic to the Irish cause in the wake of Henry’s cynical handball in the playoff match between the two. Calls for Domenech’s head were the loudest contribution from the home crowd all evening, and the impression that France is a team on an inexorable road to self-destruction permeated the Parisian night.

Clearly superior on the field, Del Bosque and his players will have noted with pride the olés emanating from both sets of supporters as Spain displayed its silken passing game. Most teams that are given the mantle of favorites for an international competition have their foes, both sporting and historical; that Spain seems to excite only admiration wherever it plays can be of great benefit to Del Bosque’s team during the World Cup.

In playing terms, the manager’s deployment of his team, and his tacit admission that he can largely leave them to it, is the problem haunting the minds of his tactical adversaries. Leaving out Xavi and Fernando Torres – returning after two months on the sidelines following a knee operation – was a decision guided by empathy with the clubs that pay their salaries. Spain’s ability to look as threatening without them is priceless. David Villa, a goalscorer against France, has 36 strikes to his name in 55 matches. Del Bosque often opts for a lone striker, and that would leave Torres on the bench. For a club side, this arrangement would require an outlay of over €100 million. In midfield, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta would fetch a similar amount, as would David Silva and Fàbregas.

Faith in Iker

“There is no system one and system two,” insisted Del Bosque. “We tried to create chances from the freedom we gave to Silva and Iniesta.” This roving mandate bestowed on Spain’s creative players is made possible by Spain’s economical defence, which has conceded just 13 goals in 23 games under the current manager. Iker Casillas completed his 102nd game for the team in France: the fact that second-choice goalkeeper Pepe Reina is rarely handed an opportunity is precisely the opposite of a lack of faith on Del Bosque’s part.

Spain has world-class defensive midfielders in both Marcos Senna and Sergio Busquets, and elegant passers of the ball in Xavi and Xabi Alonso. Silva and Iniesta are equally capable of tearing a defence apart with direct running and Jesús Navas, making only his second start for Spain, proved that he could well be the substitute with the biggest impact at the World Cup if his well-documented anxiety issues allow him to travel. Sergio Ramos, who added a fine goal to a rampaging display at right back is an obvious asset when joining the attack. Against a counter-attacking team, though, Del Bosque would do well to rein in Ramos’ attacking play, as he is too often caught out of position. Casillas’ vision to swiftly punt a gathered corner in the direction of Navas late in the second half even suggested a long-ball option that could be used to good effect against teams, such as first group opponent Switzerland, that are unlikely to venture forward in numbers except for set-pieces.

Brazil coach Dunga, whose side looked entirely unconvincing in a 2-0 win against Ireland, has singled out Spain as a World Cup favorite, highlighting Del Bosque’s bitter-sweet situation: he has a team to take on the world, and the well-grounded weight of expectation that it will duly triumph.

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Published: Mar 8 2010
Category: Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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