Del Bosque and Alonso opt for flattery

 

IT WAS cat and mouse in Gdansk last night. Vincente del Bosque waltzed into the stadium shortly after seven o’clock wearing the most roguish grin since Fernando Rey was last seen giving Gene Hackman the run around in The French Connection.

No, the Spanish coach would not be naming his team.

No, he could not confirm if he would be playing any of his nominal forwards or would be sticking with Cesc Fabregas as a “false nine”.

And he chuckled fondly when informed that earlier Giovanni Trapattoni had predicted Spain would indeed name Fernando Torres or Fernando Llorente.

“Well, he knows the Spanish team and he knows football so it is just another opinion.”

After a faltering performance against Italy, characterised by Del Bosque’s preference to leave all of his first-choice strikers on the bench, there is moderate pressure on the Spanish to rediscover the sumptuous improvised brilliance that has set them apart in recent years.

The quality of the pitch against Italy has been debated so much that even Del Bosque sounded weary of it.

Instead, he was keen to highlight the combative qualities of the Irish side.

“I am worried. I know they have lots of weapons – tall players who head the ball well. Ireland is competitive and we saw their results from the past. There will be lots of difficulties to overcome but I think they will attack and create chances too. Their players are very talented.

“We have played English club players and they have Doyle, for example, who is very dangerous. They are aggressive and they go from defence to forward so we will have to play a good match.”

It was interesting that Del Bosque singled out Doyle for mention. Earlier, Xabi Alonso had revealed that the Spanish have discussed the Irish options of Robbie Keane and either Jonathan Walters or Kevin Doyle dropping back to supplement the Irish midfield.

So the Spanish coach was plainly aware that Doyle might well be sacrificed for this particular match.

Either way, the champions are clear about what they can expect from the Irish.

“With Irish teams, you know they are very proud,” Alonso said. “They will fight from the first to last minute. They will try to play as a team. It will be difficult. They know us, they know our characteristics but we also know them because they play Premier League. We will have to be patient.

“We have to try and score an early goal because that can change things. We have to fight from the beginning.”

Invariably, Alonso was asked about the summer he spent as a teenager in Kells, Co Meath, where he famously endangered a glittering football future by lining out in local Gaelic football matches. His lingering affection for the country as well as his years spent playing with Liverpool makes him the foremost authority on Ireland in the Spanish dressingroom.

“Most of the games they have played with two strikers but we know one will drop to make it more compact around the midfield area. If Walters plays or Doyle with Keane, we will see. Trapattoni said they have a clear idea of how to approach the game.

“Of course, we are not going to change our style but we must be aware of their strengths – they can counter-attack and they are very strong from set-pieces, a combative team and they have a great spirit.”

The words were flattering and heartfelt. But Alonso and the other Spanish players know that tomorrow night in Gdansk, they are expected to make a statement.

“We are very calm inside and we know if we trust ourselves and be patient we can win,” Alonso promised.

“This pressure is not a novelty for us.”