Spain refuse to tumble into the void
World and European champions prove ability to produce when it really matters
Italy, Russia, Portugal, Paraguay, Germany, Holland, France, Portugal again, Italy again and now France again. All of them overcome. If Spain stood on the edge on Tuesday night, they once again refused to tumble into the void.
Their trip to Saint-Denis was billed as the biggest game this generation had played outside of a major tournament, effectively becoming a one-off, knock-out game – a "final" to use the Spanish cliche. Like all those other "finals", the outcome was familiar. Spain progressed.
Spain have not been beaten in a knockout game at a major tournament since 2006. The risk here was that they would not even be at a major tournament in 2014.
But the world champions should now be able to defend their title. Spain have played 10 knockout games – nine that really were, plus this one – stretching back to 22 June 2008 when they faced Italy in the quarter-final of the European Championship. The run includes three quarter-finals, three semi-finals, and three finals. La selección prevailed every time.
They have done so without conceding a single goal: 10 matches, 10 clean sheets, just short of a thousand minutes. When people talk of pragmatism, the measure is surely results and by that measure this team is the most pragmatic there has been.
When it matters, Spain have proven extraordinarily reliable, and on Tuesday night it mattered. There are three games left in the group – Spain have to travel to Helsinki and face Georgia and Belarus at home– but they have recovered their place at the top of the group and in all probability their place in Brazil.
There have been moments when Spain have trodden a fine line, moments when they have ridden their luck too. They needed a penalty shootout to start the run against Italy and another shootout to beat Portugal at Euro 2012. Goalkeeper Iker Casillas rescued them against Paraguay at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and then stopped Arjen Robben in the final against Holland.
On Tuesday, Casillas was watching from up in the stands, injured. Down on the pitch, Víctor Valdés made a save reminiscent of Johannesburg, with France's Franck Ribèry playing the role of Robben. He then again reacted superbly in the final minutes.
Yet Spain deserved this victory. Xavi Hernández put the ball over from a couple of yards and Pedro should have had a penalty. Luck plays a part, always. But Spain have now won 21 and drawn two of their last 23 qualifying games. More than that: when it matters, they respond.
There is talent but temperament too, a competitive edge rarely highlighted and the intelligence to read a game, to manage it. Plus the technical ability to make it work and a conviction that the approach is the right one.
"Of course there were doubts," the team's manager, Vicente Del Bosque, admitted. "But we have reinforced our ideas with great maturity."
He talked about his players proving themselves to be "men".
"Spain's players have more than 700 caps between them," France's manager, Didier Deschamps, noted. "When Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso play together, the balance and strength of Spain is greater."
There was greater intensity about Spain here, and greater focus too, than there had been in the shock 1-1 home draw with Finland in Gijón; they were competitive and clever. There were some key facets: Pedro's eye for space, dashing into the area in search of goals (he has 10 in eight games for Spain), Nacho Monreal's willingness to push up the left, from where he provided the goal; Andrés Iniesta's swift feet and breathtaking touches; Alonso's command of the speed of the game and the needs of his team, his ability to overcome French pressure and break through lines of resistance with a range of passing that added verticality to Spain's horizontal domination.
This was recognisably Spain, a team that can administer a match like few sides: one of the most surprising things about their 1-1 draws with France and Finland was that they were caught out once they had taken the lead.
When Spain's style is defined, it is often defined in ludicrously narrow terms; when it is judged, it is often criticised for its supposed lack of creativity when confronted by teams parking the bus, as if every other team finds that easy somehow. Unlike those that dig in and throw bodies at the ball, it is rarely eulogised for its defensive qualities, for its control or its ability to reduce the other side's attacking talent– its ability, in fact, to almost entirely remove the other side's attacking intent. That too is pragmatic; that too is playing to their strengths, minimising those of the opposition.
There is a reason why teams play ultra-defensively against Spain. And, contradictory though it may sound, there is a reason why Spain are happy that they do. Yes, it is frustrating not to find a way through; yes, you can get caught on the break. But if they do not attack you, if they cannot attack you, they are less likely to. When Spain do get caught, when they do lose, there is a rush to announce the death of their style, to rubbish not just the performance but their entire identity. No one ever seems to announce the death of any other style.
But then Spain have a habit of closing the debate with a victory. It is inevitable that there are doubts: how could there not be? There are certainly some modifications that could usefully be made too, some variations on a theme, and some decisions that can be questioned. Mistakes are made. But when it matters, recent history has shown that Spain rarely let anyone down. "Why would we change our style if it works?" Del Bosque asked.
Football is a sport and one day Spain will lose. You can't win every time. What's remarkable is that Spain have made people think you can. - Guardian Service