Relaxed champions take it all in their stride


THERE’S NOT much to the little town of Gniewino, some 75 kilometres from Gdansk, and there’s barely even a signpost to help you on you’re way until you’re almost in the place. By then, the flags and banners celebrating the decision of the Spanish to base themselves there are everywhere and the 21 turbines of its wind-farm have come into view; going around and around and around. Perfect.

Perhaps it’s the setting or the fact that the team has progressed so smoothly to the semi-finals of this tournament but there was a strangely serene air to the defending champions’ latest press conference at Gniewino’s small but impressive centre of Culture and Tourism.

It was strangely understated and many of the media who made the journey yesterday were still busy chatting when Cesc Fabregas and Xabi Alonso quietly took to the stage in the main conference room.

As he has on the pitch over the past couple of weeks too, the Real Madrid man made the greater contribution.

He is, of course, on something of a roll having scored twice on his 100th appearance for his country and played a key role in a defeat of France that ensured his side made it safely to the last four. Somehow, the team appears to have made it this far without either being severely stretched or really sparkling. There have been suggestions that they are tired which, if true, may prove a problem in Donetsk where Portugal will arrive better rested and having travelled less far.

Alonso, though, simply feels that they have had tough games and perhaps deserve a little more credit, although he’s not exactly shouting about the team’s biggest win of the tournament so far, the 4-0 defeat of Ireland.

“I’m not sure about that at all,” he said when asked why Italy had given the champions the most problems to date.

“The first game was really competitive, Italy are a great side. The third game against Croatia, was a pretty tough one.

“Why? They have a very good team. They played a cracking game against England. Their players are playing at the top level, Italy, and we are expecting something similar on Wednesday against Portugal.”

The Italian press has apparently described this Spanish team as boring but Alonso shrugged off a question about the assessment, saying simply that he respects all opinions but is happy with the system. He is, he observes a few moments later, pleased that the more adventurous sides have generally done well here over the last few weeks.

“Yeah, I’m happy for the fans who must be enjoying watching great football games, great football teams. That’s great, not just for the present, but for the future of this tournament. Most teams are trying to keep the ball, keep control of the games, and look for the attacking game. That is the best way to look for victory. The teams that are here now are here because they deserve to be here. But nobody takes anything for granted; you have to play each game as a final, as we will do on Wednesday.”

The Real Madrid star spoke respectfully of the threat that club-mate Ronaldo and Manchester United’s Nani can pose, insisting that there will have to be a particular emphasis on defending against the pair. Fabregas, somewhat inevitably, was asked about Lionel Messi and Alonso showed a hint of surprise when the former Arsenal midfielder casually described the striker, whose 25th birthday was on Sunday, as the world’s best player and comparisons between himself and his team mate as “nonsense”.

Fabregas, in fact, might well envy Alonso and the way he gets to surge forward from deep positions at these championships while he seeks to get on top of the “false number nine” before, more often than not, making way for Fernando Torres whose pace can then be used to exploit the tiredness of defenders who have had to relentlessly chase opponents for an hour or so.

So far, it has all gone well enough to fairly comfortably maintain Spain’s status as favourites for the title although the Germans look more of a threat now than they did two years ago. Letting his inexperience of such big events show, perhaps, Germany’s Marco Reus suggested the other day that his side is now the one to beat here – but his skipper Philipp Lahm was quick to set the record straight, insisting that the world champions retain top spot.

You’d scarcely think it as you look around Gniewino but then that, of course, is precisely the way they like it. Tomorrow night they’ll have left the forests of northern Poland firmly behind them and we can take it for granted that, back in their natural environment, the field of play, they’ll look every inch the formidable champions they are.

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