Spanish missing class, as Germans miss the boat
JUNE 29 — Veteran coach, World Cup winner, European Championship winner, twice Champions League winner and twice Spanish Primera Liga winner, but still fallible all the same. That is Vicente Del Bosque.
This is no criticism of the much-respected Spaniard, but merely his tactical decision for Spain’s Euro 2012 semi-final against Portugal on Wednesday.
The key reason that the Spanish lads struggled past Portugal was because of Del Bosque’s mistake of including Alvaro Negredo in the starting 11. Oh, and I do understand that hindsight is 20-20 vision. But it is only this one game which I am talking about here.
Anyway, the Sevilla striker had no pace going forward. This allowed the Portuguese to hold a high line in defence and their midfielders could also close down areas in midfield quickly.
The only option out for the Spanish then was the long ball. Who would have thought that, in footballing terms, Spain (or any Spanish club for that matter) and long ball would ever be used in the same sentence! Well, I never!
And so it came to pass, this rare moment in Spanish football, and Spain struggled … until Cesc Fabregas came in for the disappointing Negredo in the 54th minute. Jesus Navas’ entry for David Silva six minutes later further boosted their efforts.
By the time Pedro replaced Xavi in the 87th minute, the pace had changed and Spain had the thrust down the flanks, which definitely made Pepe and Bruno Alves confused without having an out-and-out striker to mark.
It was the “false number nine” that was key in this game, and Fabregas (learning well from his club team-mate Lionel Messi) made a difference in a situation where he was Plan B.
Back to the starting line-up, I feel that as much as Fernando Torres has been poor, a player with his pace is always going to worry defenders. So, in this case, it would have been the pace of Torres, and not the one-paced Negredo, who could and would have made a difference for Spain.
However, credit to the Portuguese who took advantage of this and worked their socks off.
They were quick in closing down the Spanish midfield, safe in the knowledge that the Spanish were never going to get behind them.
Still goal-scoring chances were too few and far in-between for both sides and it is telling that the most clear-cut opportunity of the match only came in the 90th minute, when Cristiano Ronaldo broke past two Spanish defenders and was clean through, at the edge of the penalty box.
One could imagine the number of times Spanish goalie Iker Casillas had seen this happen, facing Ronaldo on the training pitch at Real Madrid, or watching him on the opposite end in actual matches.
A shot that ballooned way over the bar had Casillas not even needing to try raising his arms.
The extra-time was quite probably the best part of the game and the Spanish took full control for almost all of it.
They came even closer than they had in the entire game earlier with Andres Iniesta having the best chance of the entire 120 minutes. With only goalkeeper Rui Patricio between him and the Portugal goal-mouth, he did enough to direct the ball towards goal but the goalie parried the ball out and it was a case of too little too late for the Spanish.
Then came the football lottery, and when a centreback does a “Panenka” in a penalty shoot-out, you just knew that destiny was definitely favouring Spain.
I take my hat off to Sergio Ramos for having the gumption to follow Andrea Pirlo, who had done the same just three days earlier. The Italian midfielder had put everything on the line in that penalty against England and he pulled it off with aplomb.
He could have gone the Roberto Baggio way, remembered for his missed penalty in a World Cup final, rather than for his genius. But genius just cannot stay hidden.
As was the case early this morning, when Pirlo cemented his legendary status by being great in defence, midfield and attack for Italy against overwhelming favourites Germany.
Again, it seems a highly-respected manager, known for bringing previously-unknown flair to the staid Germans, got it wrong in his player selection for a semi-final clash.
Joachim Loew made the mistake of starting with Tony Kroos on the right. It was a right midfield muddle as Kroos started losing all tactical discipline by drifting into the middle and muddling up the Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira partnership.
Italy did the natural thing for any thinking team, overloading on the left with Giorgio Chiellini in acres of space. After some brilliant control and possession in the middle of the pitch by Pirlo, a pass to Chiellini was then connected to Antonio Cassano, and following a brilliant turn to lose his marker, Cassano made the crucial cross to Mario Balotelli to head home.
Surprisingly, Germany did not learn their lesson and after some more threats from the left … BANG! … it was 2-0 to Italy before half-time.
You would think that Kroos would not come on after half-time but Loew still insisted on keeping him, a move that he might possibly regret after having a true reflection over the whole game.
The Italians kept chugging along with tremendous character and will. The team orchestrated by Pirlo showed strength of character and also their physical endurance is nothing short of phenomenal.
You would not have guessed that it was the Italians who played a gruelling 120 minutes on Sunday night — before beating England in a penalty shootout — giving them less than three days’ rest, while the Germans got a good five days’ rest after their quarter-final last Friday.
The Italians will now start as favourites in the final and certainly look stronger and have more players turning in consistent performances.
The Spaniards admittedly have not seen the best of Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets and this has taken out too much from Xabi Alonso and Andres Iniesta. There will be changes in their line-up and expect Pedro to start after his freshness and speed as displayed against Portugal.
As my pre-tournament favourites take the flight home after their latest defeat (in a long line of defeats) at the hands of the Italians, I just wish they would stop trying to rebuild during a major competition.
Lukas Podolski was poor and Kroos will never take the international stage by storm, not now and not in the future.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.