Saturday 24 March 2018

Classy Villa helps Spain dodge bullet

Chile 1 Spain 2

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

SPAIN survive and avoid a showdown with Brazil, but their joy was a mere sub-plot to the main drama.

When the final whistle blew, the Chilean bench responded in subdued manner as they waited for news from elsewhere. The confirmation that Switzerland had failed to defeat Honduras allowed them to celebrate, albeit in reserved enough fashion. Their relief will have been shared by footballing purists.

It would have been a travesty if Chile had exited the competition at this juncture. Indeed, with a bit more composure, they might have qualified as group winners. Alas, they perpetuated a Latin America stereotype by struggling to contain the fire in their belly in a remarkable opening half.

Spain have developed the reputation of the great entertainers, yet they effectively owe their progression to the discipline that proved beyond their opponents.

Vicente del Bosque's side held a two-goal lead at the break which was born from Chilean rashness.

To their credit, the South Americans bounced back from the controversial dismissal of Marco Estrada to add a degree of intrigue to the remainder.


The bottom line is that they, as runners-up, will encounter Brazil on Monday, while Spain progress to a derby with Portugal in Cape Town on Tuesday evening.

Certainly, the return of Andres Iniesta and the continued excellence of David Villa will send them south with confidence. Nevertheless, question-marks persist about the form of Fernando Torres and the competence of their defensive unit as a whole.

Still, they're in there with a shout, and remain Europe's best hope after a bizarre week for their more successful neighbours, with France and Italy sent packing.

Indeed, while the host continent provided all four semi finalists in Germany back in 2006, their representatives have struggled in South Africa.

Only six nations remain from the 13 qualifiers, and two all-European second round clashes will reduce the numbers further. In contrast, all five South American visitors stay standing. While the England-Germany clash will understandably hog the attention, the showdown between Chile and the Brazilians has the footballing potential to be the tie of the next round.

Chile, needing just a point to top the group, have won plenty of admirers with their entertaining approach, but fans wondered whether the situation would force Marcelo Bielsa to adapt his side's philosophy, particularly in the absence of suspended playmaker Matias Fernandez.

Such fears proved unfounded, with their three-man defence and flexible attacking strategy exuding positivity. The enthusiasm almost cost them at the outset when they committed numbers forward and were duly exposed by a clearance which Gonzalo Zara misjudged, allowing Torres a run on goal. Alas, he fired high and wide.

Bielsa's charges were unaffected by the scare and their intricacy and clever movement troubled a Spanish side regarded for such attributes. Liverpool outcast Mark Gonzalez nearly applied the finishing seal to a rapid-fire passage instigated by Jean Beausejour.

The South Americans were fired up. Too fired up, perhaps. They incurred three silly yellow cards in quick succession, with defenders Waldo Ponce and Gary Medal ruling themselves out of the Brazilian clash as a result. "We arrived late into tackles, but we didn't use force excessively. There was no bad intentions," argued Bielsa.

Ultimately, it was a different kind of exuberance from keeper Claudio Bravo that cost them dearly.

Needlessly, the Real Sociedad man raced outside the area to slide-tackle Torres when the Spanish striker still had to negotiate a way past covering defender Gonzalo Jara. His contribution went from bad to worse as he pushed the loose ball towards Villa who, from 40 yards out, sent a delicious exocet into the unguarded net.

"We didn't feel very comfortable on the pitch until then," confessed Iniesta afterwards.

Although Beausejour nearly replied instantly, the momentum was now with Spain, whose early tentativeness evaporated in the position of strength. Recent history has shown that when they score first, they win.

Eight minutes shy of the interval, they put together the move that secured the three points for two significant reasons. Firstly, because Iniesta doubled their lead with a superb conversion from Villa's pull-back, and secondly as Estrada was dismissed by ref Marco Rodriguez for clipping Torres in the build-up.

It looked an accidental coming together, but the hysterical reaction from Torres swayed the Mexican official, who had run out of patience with Estrada -- the 27-year-old was lucky to avoid a second yellow for a rash challenge on Sergio Busqets minutes earlier. Bielsa had no complaints.

Game over? Not quite. The Chile boss introduced two half-time subs and they made an instant impact when Rodrigo Millar engineered space 20 yards out, and launched an effort which took a sharp deflection off Gerald Pique to reduce the deficit.


For goal-difference reasons, Chile needed to keep the margin to one in case the Swiss struck in Bloemfontein. It was delicately balanced, with Spain content enough to own the ball without really going for the jugular. Torres, feeling a muscular problem, was replaced by Fabregas, with Villa pushed up, while Xavi and Iniesta roamed with intent.

Bielsa instructed his charges to rein in their natural attacking tendencies, and their three man defence gradually developed into a bank of five as the minutes ticked down. They achieved their mission, and fully deserved to do so. "They had enormous energy," admitted an impressed Del Bosque.

Brazil would be wrong to assume they have dodged a bullet.

Chile -- Bravo, Medel, Ponce, Jara; Isla, Estrada, Vidal; Sanchez (Orellana 65), Beausejour, Gonzalez (Millar 45); Valdivia (Paredes 45).

Spain -- Casillas, Ramos, Pique, Puyol, Capdevila; Alonso (Martinez 73), Busquets; Iniesta, Xavi, Villa; Torres (Fabregas 55).

Ref -- M Rodriguez (Mexico).

Irish Independent

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