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Striker worry threatens to keep world from Spain’s feet

The Spanish team’s progress in the World Cup has masked some uncomfortable dilemmas for the squad’s coach.


The French composer Hector Berlioz once wrote: “the luck of having talent is not enough; one must also have a talent for luck.” In reaching the World Cup semi-finals, Spain showed that it had discovered the latter in abundance in South Africa, in the temporary absence of the harmonious assurance of the former.

A generation of players that makes up the most talented squad at the tournament enjoyed the sort of luck that makes champions in defeating a resolute Paraguay 1-0 in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium. As a well-balanced first half drew to a close, Nelson Valdez brought down a cross with a deft touch and fired past Iker Casillas, only to see the strike ruled out for an offside decision against Oscar Cardozo. The Paraguay striker was clearly not interfering with play as the letter of the law dictates in such circumstances.

Casillas then saved a Cardozo penalty, before Paraguay’s Justo Villar did the same the other end moments later, after Xabi Alonso was ordered to retake his spot kick due to a doubtful infringement.

Three penalties; two saves; one goal; 0-0. Whether or not the introduction of Cesc Fàbregas changed the face of the game, Vicente del Bosque’s decision continued an unfortunate statistic for Fernando Torres; after the Paraguay game the Liverpool striker had completed an hour of any match just once, and in the second round and quarter-final, Spain only found the net on both occasions after his substitution.

Against Portugal, Fernando Llorente was instrumental in the build-up to David Villa’s goal, and against Paraguay Pedro Rodríguez, brought on for Alonso, rattled the post with a fine strike that Villa, with the aid of the woodwork for a second game running, finished off.

That goal made Villa the World Cup’s top scorer, and it will be scant exaggeration to contend that without the Barcelona striker, the panorama for Spain would be one of insurmountable proportions. The aura of invincibility that Spain carried into the World Cup was shattered in the opening game against Switzerland and the team that swept all before it in qualifying has yet to make an appearance in South Africa. Only Andrés Iniesta has found the net aside from Villa, and Pedro, Llorente and Fàbregas have all looked more likely to do so during their cameos than Torres. Fàbregas, in particular, must wonder what he has to do to get a start for his country.

Combining the vision of Xavi, some of the trickery of Iniesta and the passing range of Alonso, but with more pace than the Real Madrid midfielder, Fàbregas is one of the most complete midfielders in the world and last season ranked second in assists in the Premier League. He also chipped in with 15 goals, placing him eighth in that list – one spot behind Torres, who netted 18 times. In assists Torres ranked 130th, with just three.

For an out-and-out striker, providing little in terms of team play is perfectly acceptable – if the goals are flowing. Torres, though, did not score at all during the qualifying campaign for South Africa, and has only netted twice in the last 12 months with La Roja – in friendlies against Macedonia and Poland.

If by his luck in front of goal should a player be judged, then Torres is in a wretched spell with his national team. Del Bosque will need considerably more than luck when his team takes to the field in Durban if he is to guide his nation further still in this tournament; back to Johannesburg and into a first World Cup final next Sunday in the colossal Soccer City stadium. Jesús Navas, Fàbregas, Llorente and Pedro have all made their side look more threatening in recent matches after being called from the bench, while Torres has too often ceded possession, missed gilt-edged chances or run into a blind alley. The uncomfortable truth to which Del Bosque must open his eyes is that Spain play better without Torres in the starting line-up.

Standing in Spain’s way is Germany, the consummate tournament team who consistently defy pre-competition forecasts to reach the latter stages.

It will be Germany’s 11th World Cup semi-final. While Spain has scored twice in the knock-out phase, Germany has put four past both England and Argentina. Del Bosque is astute enough to know that one goal will not be sufficient to reach the final. It is curious then that he seems set once again to ignore the talent on his bench and trust in Torres to breach the German defence, as his predecessor did in Vienna to give Spain victory in the 2008 European Championship.

The Murcian could well look to England for proof that the big-name player does not always provide the big game performance. Fabio Capello was over-reliant on Wayne Rooney throughout the tournament, and the Manchester United striker failed to deliver a single goal. Lionel Messi failed to score for Argentina. Cristiano Ronaldo managed a comedy strike against North Korea with the match well-won. Germany have looked a better side for the absence of Michael Ballack. It is not turning out to be a tournament for the poster boys of Nike and Adidas.

Perhaps it is time for Del Bosque to turn to his bench and give Fàbregas, Llorente and Pedro a longer spell against Germany. For Spain, the chance that Torres will score in the hour or so allotted to him is one too dangerous to take. By the time the clock in Durban reads 60 minutes it may well be too late.


Published: Jul 5 2010
Category: Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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