It's all in your World Cup

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Day the eleventh

Switzerland - Togo 2-0

Didn't see this one. Barnetta's finish was exact, so it looks like he added to an impressive performance against France. Two good goals, several shoddy refereeing decisions and another African team dumped out of the competition.

Ukraine - Saudi Arabia 4-0

Thrashing the weakest team in the tournament hardly announces a return to form, but you blah can only blah blah beat what's put blah blah blah in front of you blah blah blah blah. Was working during this one too.

Spain - Tunisia 3-1

All that brings us to Spain, my favorite team of the first round of matches. I fully expected them to take inspiration from the Argentine mauling of Serbia and Montengro and push on to become only the second team in the tournament to put two consistently good performances together. Instead they laboured to a flattering result, sending Aragones back to the play book in the process. After several tournaments of playing with two wingers, like De Pedro, Vicente, Joaquin, Etxeberria et al, Spain started this tournament with a packed midfield and a relatively liberated front three. Against Ukraine this worked brilliantly as their opponents gave space and time for Senna, Xavi and Alonso to find the front three and maintain control of the ball across the field. Tunisia on the other hand were far stronger opponents, and in Trabelsi had a player who seemed to have been possessed by the spirit of Cafu in his prime, who was to be found stretching the Spanish midfield repeatedly over the course of the first half. With Tunisia finding frequent space and long stretches of pitch to run into on the left hand side of the Spanish midfield, it was harder for Spain to maintain pressure, as Luis Garcia seemed unwilling to track back, and Alonso found himself fighting fires down Pernia's flank. Subsequently, while Tunisia managed to steal a goal after sloppy play by Puyol (something that happens more often than you might think, as anyone who watches Barcelona a lot can attest), Spain created very little of note in the first half.

The reorganisation of the second half, with the introduction of Fabregas and Raul strung the midfield out a little more solidly across the centre of the pitch. However, while this strengthened the Spanish effort, and allowed Fabregas and Xavi limited opportunities to attack through the centre, it wasn't until the introduction of Joaquin that Spain began to stretch Tunisia and change the game. Suddenly Tunisia could no longer afford to pack the centre of the penalty area and rely on making it hard for Fabregas to pass holes in their formation, as they found themselves double-teaming the very direct and very quick winger. Tunisia became disjointed, crowding Joaquin for the first goal, and caught playing a high defensive line for the second, seemingly unaware that Torres is just as quick as his team-mate.

Spain arguably have one of the three strongest squads at the tournament, with the likes of Iniesta and Reyes yet to get a game, even though the former revitalised Barcelona during the Champions' League final, and the latter put in seveal excellent performances during Arsenal's European run last season. Arguably thought the thing that sets Spain aside from either Argentina or Brazil is that they have the personnel to play two very different systems. With Joaquin and Reyes they have two of the best wingers at the world cup, alongside a more measured and cunning midfield complement of Xavi, Fabregas, and Iniesta, finally supported by the solidity of Alonso and Senna. From those seven players it's possible to constitute a very flexible midfield, with a couple of players on the bench able to either drive forward through the middle or down the wings to stretch the game, or shore it up should the need arise. Spain are clearly capable of playing excellent football, and have finishers capable of taking a good proportion of the chances on offer, so with a squad as strong as this, it seems more important to focus on the manner of their escape, rather than the first half stutter that put them in need of rescue.

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