Monday 25 September 2017

Swiss roll over poor Spain

Fernandes strike sets up major shock as burden of history threatens to derail favourites

Jeremy Wilson

Maybe it is those infernal vuvuzelas. Whatever it is, something about South Africa disagrees with Spanish footballers. They have only lost twice in 48 matches since November 2006, both times here.

Last summer, in the Confederations Cup, Spain unexpectedly lost to the United States. If that was a shock this was a thunderclap. Switzerland is famous for its mountains, its cheese, and its cuckoo clocks, but not its footballers.

But, on 52 minutes, Gelson Fernandes scored what might prove to be the most unexpected and unlikely goal of the tournament.

The 2010 World Cup now has its first upset and one that also clearly ranks among the bigger shocks in the competition's entire history. It was, after all, the first time that Switzerland had beaten Spain and only the second defeat in three years and 49 matches for the European champions.

Importance

Of most pressing importance, Spain now face a massive task to even progress beyond Group H. Chile also started yesterday with a win, meaning Vicente del Bosque's team are already three points adrift of their two main group rivals.

Having failed to get beyond even the quarter-finals for the past 60 years, Spain must also overcome a considerable psychological hurdle to conquer a mounting fear of deja-vu. No team has ever won the World Cup after losing their opening match and the assumption that it would all be so very different this year suddenly looks considerably more distant.

"It's not a good omen that we gave to the rest of the teams and the football world," admitted Del Bosque. "We can't lower our heads and think we had bad luck. We have the chance to avenge ourselves on June 21 and 25. That is the way we have to be thinking."

Aside from the result, the wider concern for Del Bosque is the way Ottmar Hitzfeld so successfully drilled players of limited ability to negate Spain's unique style. They had only a third of all possession, but Switzerland still dictated the game in many respects by forcing Spain to attack from the wide positions in which they are less comfortable.

"There was not a huge fire in our penalty area, we were not trembling," said Hitzfeld. "Our objective was to have compact rows of players and wait for counter attacks. If you play attacking against Spain they will score goal after goal."

Del Bosque's first mistake was in the decision to select a five-man midfield in the hope that David Villa could be adequately served by Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Xabi Alonso and David Silva.

Villa's speed, guile and strike-rate are all phenomenal but, at only 5ft 9ins, there are legitimate question marks over whether he has the physical attributes to function as a lone striker. Fernando Torres certainly has more experience in that role with Liverpool and Del Bosque may also need reminding that Cesc Fabregas scored more goals last season than Iniesta, Xavi, Alonso and Busquets put together. Torres was not used until the 61st minute while Fabregas never moved from the bench.

With Switzerland happy to concede possession, the pattern was quickly established. The ball would fizz around between the five-man Spanish midfield with unerring accuracy from just inside the Switzerland half while Hitzfeld's team would chase, press, harry and basically do whatever they could to limit the threat. That also included plenty of fouls, with Stephane Grichting and Philippe Senderos both fortunate to escape cautions from Howard Webb -- refereeing his first World Cup match -- for early tackles on Busquets and Xavi.

Despite having so much of the ball, Spain had little to show for their first-half efforts, with Gerard Pique squandering the best chance by shooting too close to Diego Benaglio.

Such impotence in the final third was punished suddenly and dramatically. A clearance from Benaglio was won by Blaise Nkufu, whose header pierced the Spanish defence and sent Eren Derdiyok clear on goal. Derdiyok just over-ran possession and collided with Iker Casillas but the ball broke loose for Fernandes to direct it past Pique and into an empty goal.

Fernandes had scored only three league times in two seasons at Manchester City. Spain reacted with a new level of urgency.

Iniesta curled a shot narrowly wide before Xavi split the Switzerland defence only for Benaglio to smother Villa's effort.

The crossbar was then left shaking after a 25-yard drive from Alonso, while Jesus Navas also sent a crisp shot whistling just inches from the outside of Benaglio's post.

Spain, however, remained vulnerable on the counter-attack, with Derdiyok again getting behind their defence before shooting against the inside of the post with the outside of his foot.

It mattered not and as Webb blew the final whistle, the Switzerland bench rose to celebrate as if they had won the World Cup.

"I don't think I realise what's happened," said Fernandes. "It was a bit lucky but a very special moment for the country. It is historic."

A different type of history threatens to overshadow Spain's World Cup. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Spain -- Casillas; Sergio Ramos, Pique, Puyol, Capdevila; Busquests (Navas 61); X Alonso; Silva, Xavi Hernandez, Iniesta (Pedrito 77) ; Villa (Torres 61) .

Switzerland -- Benaglio; Lichtsteiner, Senderos (Von Bergen 35), Grichting, Ziegler; Barnetta (Eggimann 90), Inler, Huggel, Fernandes; Derdiyok (Yakan 79), Nkufo.

REF -- H Webb (England).

Irish Independent

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