Sunday 4 December 2016

Ireland could find fortune favours brave

Willingness to counter-attack can push Spain to their limit, writes Guillem Balague

Published 04/12/2011 | 05:00

At the end of last month's England-Spain friendly, a mini summit took place in the bowels of Wembley. Vicente del Bosque met Rafa Benitez and Víctor Fernández, who was coach of the Zaragoza team that beat Arsenal in the famous Nayim Cup Winners' Cup final.

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It was easy to find out what they had been talking about because we all saw it -- the England victory saw the return of the same mistakes and wrong attitude that had seen Spain lose to Argentina, Portugal and Italy in friendlies after the World Cup win. Slow build-up, no depth, no movement off the ball, everybody wanted the ball to their feet and with no clear striker there was an absence of Plan B.

Del Bosque reminded interlocutors that Spain had won all their official games (14) since losing to Switzerland in the first game of the World Cup, a recognition that there is, at the moment, two teams. It is normal, Del Bosque kept saying, you cannot ask Madrid and Barcelona players to be at their highest level for 70 games a year. And after big titles won, both domestically and with the national side, you always lose a bit of edge.

But that is exactly the danger. Which Spain will turn up at Euro 2012?

The current world and European champions are playing at a level above everyone else, as that recently equalled world record of consecutive competitive games won at international level shows. They completely and ruthlessly dominated their qualifying group with eight wins from eight games. And then there's the Spain side that turns up for friendly games: essentially the same group of players, but a group that seems to drop a level when the result doesn't really matter. While this group of champions, with nothing to prove, lacks motivation in friendlies, their opponents are the opposite, raising their game to prove themselves against the champions.

There is also another thing, another consequence of the winning streak. Spain won the World Cup with four consecutive 1-0 wins and with Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol in the centre of defence. They have only played a couple of full games together with Barcelona. Puyol is recovering from an eight-month absence and his body will probably not reach its usual levels, and Pique seems to have lost his way a bit. So much so that Pep Guardiola recently admitted his best centre-back was Javier Mascherano.

With this doubt over the pair, there is still a fair degree of familiarity about the line-up and style of play. Del Bosque has remained faithful to the core of the side that brought success in the past two major tournaments, having changed a third of the squad he first inherited from Luis Aragonés, and adheres to the same possession-based principles as before. If anything, the Spanish national team has become even more like Barcelona in the way it presses the opposition and plays a high defensive line. Which begs the question: would a 'keeper like Victor Valdes or Pepe Reina not be better suited than Iker Casillas?

However, there have been some changes since South Africa and certain positions are there for someone to stake a claim: left-back, back-up centre-back, and one of the striking slots. Joan Capdevila made the left-back position his own at the European Championships in 2008 and the World Cup last year, doing a great job in a problem position that had previously been filled by the likes of Romero, Raul Bravo, and Juanfran without much success. Unfortunately, since leaving Villarreal for Benfica last summer, Capedvila has suffered a massive drop in form. This has led Del Bosque to give opportunities to both Nacho Monreal of Malaga and Jordi Alba from Valencia, but strangely omitting Jose Enrique.

Alba started at left-back in two of Spain's last three games and impressed with an assist and some terrific attacking play. He isn't the best defender, but Del Bosque likes him as someone who offers a genuine attacking threat from full-back. Alba started out as an attacking midfielder at La Masia, before joining Valencia and being converted into a left-back by Unai Emery.

Álvaro Arbeloa appeals to Del Bosque because he can play on either flank. With a long-term replacement for Puyol required, he has been talking up Sergio Ramos' ability to play in the middle of the defence. In attack, David Villa and Fernando Torres remain the main strikers, with Fernando Llorente making the squad ahead of Alvaro Negredo and Roberto Soldado. Jesus Navas provides width in the absence of the injured Pedro.

But perhaps the most interesting selection and tactical decision involves a player familiar to Premier League and La Liga fans: that of David Silva. Overlooked for much of Del Bosque's time in charge, the Manchester City player has forced his way back into contention with some stunning performances. Against Scotland and part of the games against England and Costa Rica, Silva played as a false number nine, a more central role than he plays for City and was outstanding, scoring twice and creating a third.

With Torres and Villa suffering goal droughts and with the side veering more towards the innovations introduced by Barcelona, Spain will have to chose two or three of four strikers: Torres, Soldado (with the best stats of the four), Llorente and Negredo.

To scare Spain, to find their weaknesses, Ireland will have to play without the inferiority complex which England took to the field in the first half of that friendly. The English psychological approach might not have been the best, but they did play exactly the right way to hurt Spain, yet their critics (and Spain's supporters) will say they did nothing to deserve the win.

But tell me, how are you supposed to play a team that does not allow you to get near the ball? Defend deep, give Spain the wings and the possession, counter-attack them running in behind the space left by the full-backs, and Del Bosque and the players will have to find their absolutely best version to overcome Ireland.

Guillem Balague is a respected commentator on Spanish football. Read more at guillembalague.com

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