Alan Smith: Spain provide the ultimate football challenge ... but can Ireland stop the tiki-taka?
HOW to stop Spain? How to stop the best team on the planet, the world and European champions who arrive at Euro 2012 as obvious favourites? This is the side, after all, that wears opponents out with their relentless tiki-taka style.
So good are they at retaining possession that by the time the other team wins back the ball they are usually too tired to do anything with it. An exhausted set of Germany players testified to that problem following the World Cup semi-final two years back.
Yet history tells us that Spain can be denied, such as when Switzerland grabbed an unlikely win in South Africa thanks to some doughty defending and a goal on the break to give them a lead they just about held.
At club level, Chelsea are another side who adopted that approach, in that they defended deep and en masse against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final and somehow came out the other side covered in glory. It was a similar story in the final when Bayern Munich dominated the match.
To achieve what Chelsea did, though, you need a combination of factors going your way. For a start, the team must be disciplined and have excellent defenders.
Secondly, it is vital that the team has an outlet through a strong centre-forward holding up the ball. Isolated up front, that striker performs an invaluable role if he can make himself available and retain possession, so giving team-mates a chance to push up the pitch. If the defence doesn’t get any respite at all, it’s only a matter of time before they crack.
Didier Drogba performed this job brilliantly for Chelsea, no matter what you say about his shameless play-acting in that first leg against Barça at Stamford Bridge.
Which brings us to the most important thing required when a team simply sets out to frustrate and rebuff - luck, and lots of it.
Because when you are talking about a team of Spain’s immense quality, they are bound to create chances at some point or other. That’s when you need the good fortune. That’s when you need them to suffer a rare off day in front of goal.
Chelsea certainly profited from that against Barça and Bayern, just as Italy, Croatia and the Republic of Ireland will hope to against Spain this month. It will be fascinating actually to see how those other teams in Group C go about tackling Vicente Del Bosque’s side. Do they sit off to try and stay solid or do they press the world champions higher up the pitch?
It’s one or the other, really. There are no in-betweens. Because if you try and play a nice open game, the likes of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas and Juan Mata will take you apart. Given time and space, no-one is going to be able to compete with this lot. Nine times out of ten they will pass you to death.
Two options then, the first of which involves the opposing strikers pushing right on to Spain’s two centre-halves when Iker Casillas has the ball and the midfielders doing likewise behind.
In this situation, Spain’s full-backs will have pushed forward to allow those central defenders to split wide either side of the penalty area, with a holding midfielder dropping deep as an option through the middle.
Casillas wants to find one of these players to get the move started. So make him kick it long. Don’t let Spain’s captain play out from the back. That way, you can at least force this team into unwanted territory. A long punt from the goalkeeper turns into a scrap for possession.
The second option is the one favoured by many. As soon as Spain win the ball, retreat into your shape. Let them have it on the halfway line but when they advance further heavy traffic awaits. Defend the width of the box, knowing that Xavi and co like to weave patterns through the middle.
You can concede space on the flanks. If Spain want to sling in crosses, that’s their prerogative, but you know and they know this isn’t really their game.
That said, Del Bosque has included a couple of players who can mix things up. Jesús Navas is a genuine winger with genuine pace who, if the game remains tight, can change Spain’s angle of attack. Through the middle, meanwhile, big Fernando Llorente offers a more robust threat than Fernando Torres. Powerful in the air, Llorente could be useful as an alternative.
Whether Spain will need a Plan B is another matter entirely. For the moment at least, this is the team setting all the standards.