Tuesday 12 December 2017

Spanish inquisition begins

Del Bosque has stayed calm after defeat, but he faces massive week to reignite favourites, writes Dion Fanning

Vicente Del Bosque has fought stranger fights than this. Any man who can win the European Cup twice -- even if Florentino Perez might like to take the credit -- is unlikely to be deflected by a defeat to the most unromantic of giant-killers, Switzerland.

There may be something shrill about Del Bosque's criticisms of Ottmar Hitzfeld's side. Nobody wants to watch Switzerland at the best of times and watching them in Durban was not the best of times for Del Bosque. But his complaints about the Swiss approach again sounded like self-righteous cries of the self-regarding purist. Barcelona and Arsenal like to make the same noises and they are equally pointless.

This sense of bewilderment may have led to the desperate search for scapegoats. These include the reporter girlfriend of Iker Casillas who has been accused of distracting the goalkeeper by standing behind his goal during the warm-up and interviewing him afterwards. Women, or at least the attractive ones, will have to be banned from stadiums in future to prevent a repeat of this fiasco.

Spain has been stunned by this defeat but Del Bosque is staying calm. His predecessor Luis Aragones was critical of Del Bosque's team selection, suggesting he wouldn't have selected two "defensive" midfielders Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, even if the two are totally different players.

This, Aragones said, resulted in Spain moving the ball too slowly and lacking conviction. "The better team didn't win, the better organised one did."

This direct criticism of Del Bosque ignored Spain's stunning record since he took over. Spain won every game in qualification and before Wednesday had lost only once -- in the Confederations Cup to the USA -- in 48 matches.

Every World Cup begins with reference being made to a team's record in qualification and, after one game, everyone remembers the record is meaningless.

Yet the unfolding of the first full week of the tournament has shown one thing: nobody knows anything. Not yet anyway. Four years ago, Argentina started with even more conviction than they are showing now. They petered out then and in 2006 they weren't being led by a madman.

Del Bosque has had plenty of temptation to go insane but has kept his head. Aragones' criticism produced a measured reaction.

"I have nothing to say, everyone expresses their opinions. He is a well known person in this group. He has worked with them, has achieved extraordinary success at the Euros. I can only show maximum respect to their opinions."

This week will reveal how much respect the Spanish feel he is due. He was written off at Real Madrid as a middle manager, a front man standing on the sideline while Perez collected and marketed the stars. But Real's inability to collect as many trophies without him suggested he knew something his high-profile successors didn't.

He has been unassuming since succeeding Aragones, allowing the most gifted collection of players in the world to play. Spain's troubles may not be the fault of Del Bosque at all.

Andres Iniesta started on Wednesday but didn't finish while Fernando Torres began on the bench.

Iniesta's latest injury was dismissed as minor but that doesn't mean he is close to fitness. His absence for Barcelona in the Champions League was a key factor in their failure to break down Inter Milan in the Nou Camp and he is equally important to Spain.

Arsene Wenger was one who expected Spain to be too good for everyone in this tournament, but he has qualified his statement by stating that the injuries to Iniesta and Torres may yet unsettle the Spanish side.

Torres is at his most unpredictable when returning from injury. He usually take time to recover his sharpness and he hasn't started a competitive game since April. The thoroughbred motion that can make him seem not fully human and barely mortal sometimes disappears, leading to anger and frustration. Spain now need him to recover quickly.

Traditionally, Spain were unsettled by any type of expectation but victory in the European Championships seemed to have released them from that burden.

While they should be able to brush aside Honduras in Ellis Park tomorrow, Friday's meeting with Chile will be a greater test.

Chile impressed in beating Honduras and their commitment to attack matches Spain's, even if they have a coach in Marcelo Bielsa who offers a greater commitment to eccentricity.

Bielsa is said to have once stopped off in a zoo in search of inspiration and is rumoured to sleep at the Chilean FA headquarters.

But his eccentricities are in pursuit of certain standards. When Sebastian Pinera, Chile's president, described his country as "the greatest in the world", Bielsa dismissed the cant as an "outlandish lie".

Bielsa is raising expectations and his philosophy of football will be challenged by Hitzfeld in Port Elizabeth tomorrow.

Friday's game could be the most interesting in a week that promises intrigue. The tournament is already becoming unpredictable, bringing to an end the early complaints that dismissed it as boring. France's crisis has replaced Spain's and Germany are unpredictably unpredictable. Del Bosque will hope his survival skills aren't needed for a while yet.

Sunday Independent

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