Spain’s win over Australia cold comfort in Curitiba
Dave McKechnie saw David Villa, Fernando Torres and Juan Mata restore some Spanish pride
A strange day that felt meaningful in a meaningless way; a day of farewells in which a long shadow was cast by those Spanish players who did not play. With Andrés Iniesta effortlessly orchestrating, Spain strolled to a victory that finally gave them points at this World Cup, but did nothing to ease the hardship they have endured.
It was tough to keep a lid on the sentiment for either side, with the outclassed Australian players doing a lap of honour at full-time to mark a campaign that has been competitive and noble. By then the Spanish players were already in the showers, except for Sergio Ramos, who threw his jersey into the crowd with a gesture that everyone tried to read something into simply because of the symbolism that has attached itself to a squad that is quickly breaking up.
After the trauma of their first two defeats it must have been the toughest of weekends for these Spain players. On Saturday they had their first day off since arriving in Brazil but decided to not even leave their training complex in Curitiba for dinner. So accustomed to the story being about the trophies they will win, all the media wanted to know about were defeats, retirements, splits in the camp. Their only reason for them staying on in Brazil was for the pitiful task of ensuring they did not finish bottom of their group here.
In a Whatsapp message to group of friends, ex-players and journalists after the defeat to Chile, Xavi told of his imminent departure from Barcelona in a few plain words: “I want you to know that I have quit the club”. There reportedly are offers on the table from club sides in Qatar and New York – environments where he will hopefully gain perspective on the horrible final year of his top-level career. There was no more poignant sight in the broad, colourful streets on around the Arena de Baixada than Spain supporters with the great one’s number eight jersey on their backs.
As expected, Del Bosque did not select him here, likely bringing the curtain down on an international career that began in a friendly against the Netherlands in 2000, when José Antonio Camacho was manager and Louis van Gaal was in the other dug-out. Del Bosque made seven changes in total, with Pepe Reina finally sparing Iker Casillas further pain in goal, Koke (aka, the future) in midfield, and Fernando Torres given a chance to show what he can sometimes do up front.
Wearing their mourning strip of black, Spain began the game at a funereal pace befitting the circumstances, and Australia poured at them with almost indecent haste. Australia’s notional midfielder Oliver Bozanic, selected ahead of Mark Bresciano, pushed so far up that in those opening minutes Spain’s defenders effectively had four forwards hunting them down.
In those minutes, with their passing horribly off and their touch deserting them, you feared things might only get worse. Without the suspended Tim Cahill though, Australia had none of the threat they brought to their fine displays in their first two matches. Discovering this, Spain had by about 20 minutes relaxed to the degree that they were able to impose a testimonial pace on the match of the kind that unfortunately did not suffice against the Netherlands or Chile.
The statistics from those games made for awful weekend reading if you are Spanish: plenty of possession, but terrible carelessness and no edge. Spain lost the ball 194 times over the two matches (an average of 97 compared with an average of 70 in South Africa four years ago). Sergio Busquets committed no fouls. There were no fouls committed by Ramos, Cesar Azpilicueta or Jordi Alba against the Netherlands. Xabi Alonso made three fouls in two games. Alonso’s subsequent comments about a lack of “ambition and hunger” did not go down well with his colleagues, but it was there for all to see.
You could again identify the lack of competitive bite in the incredible sight of a Koké corner being passed all the way back to Reina after half an hour here. But actually by then it was already clear that even Spain on half-gas would be more than enough to come out on top. A half-chance for Santi Cazorla had hinted at trouble, and Juanfran was causing big problems down the right. David Villa then volleyed wide on his last international appearance before a beautiful through-ball by Iniesta put Juanfran through on the right after 36 minutes, and his cross was nicely heeled into the net by Villa.
The former Atletico Madrid forward, who is heading to play his club football in New York via Melbourne, kissed his Spain badge with tenderness, and it was a sad sight to see him trudge off reluctantly after his second-half substitution.
The second half was processional. Juan Mata, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva came on and gave Spain fresh impetus. After 69 minutes another effortless through-ball by Iniesta put in Torres, who finished easily. Thirteen minutes later, Jordi Alba’s fine cross allowed Mata to tuck the ball under Maty Ryan.
Game over. Era over. Time to move on.
SPAIN: Pepe Reina; Juanfran, Raul Albiol, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba; Xabi Alonso (David Silva, 83 mins), Koké; Santi Cazorla (Cesc Fabregas, 68 mins), Andrés Iniesta, David Villa (Juan Mata, 56 mins); Fernando Torres. Yellow card: Ramos.
AUSTRALIA: Mat Ryan; Ryan McGowan, Alex Wilkinson, Matthew Spiranovic, Jason Davidson; Mile Jedinak, Matthew McKay; Matthew Leckie, Oliver Bozanic (Mark Bresciano, 72 mins), Tommy Oar ( James Troisi, 61 mins); Adam Taggart (Ben Halloran, 45 mins). Yellow cards: Spiranovic, Jedinak.