World Cup fever: Spain, your time has come
Forget the fact that the country’s domestic football structure is in crisis, with the Primera Division breaking away from the rest of the league, and within that division two teams dominating both play and income to the point that their next challenger, Valencia, was a spectacular 25 points behind them. Twenty five points. That’s just ten less than relegated Xerez managed all season.
No, forget the epic battle for footballing supremacy that left both Barca and Real Madrid with a points total that was “freakin' barbaric”, according to Barca coach Pep Guardiola, because now it’s time for the World Cup, where Xavi no longer has Messi, Thierry Henry has no pesky Pedro to worry about and Cristiano Ronaldo suddenly realises that all his hopes and dreams rest on . . . Simao. And that Michael Jackson impersonator, Nani.
But while Xavi no longer has Messi, one wonders if it’ll bother him, given that he’ll have new teammate David Villa and Fernando Torres ahead of him, while partner-in-crime Iniesta will be nearby, always ready to receive a pass. Messi, on the other hand, is more likely to be slightly bewildered on the right side of Maradona’s Argentine attack, expecting Xavi-esque passes, when all he’s likely to get is some service in the middle third from the only man in the squad who it appears will be paying any attention to holding on to the ball: Javier Mascherano. For more on Maradona’s mad team selection, and why it’s likely going to cost Argentina the World Cup, read el Gaffer’s post.
But back to Spain. The team is well placed to do well at this year’s WC finals, for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that this group of players is ridiculously talented, has matured together and, crucially, has made a habit of winning over the last two and a half years.
Mainly, though, it’s the midfield. The starting lineup will likely be Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso as holding midfielder in the absence of the excellent Marcos Senna, who’s out injured. Between them, they have nine league titles, three league cups and five European Champions League titles. Oh, and the Euro 2008 title. That, too. And that’s just a selection of what they’ve won. I’d detail all of their achievements, throughout their careers, but I quite like my fingers, and don’t want them to wither away and die under the stress of having to type all of that. And I am, essentially, lazy. That too.
They’re quite good, then. What of it?
Well, they’re the key to the Spanish system. Anyone will tell you that the defense is definitely permeable – Puyol (or Captain Caveman, as we like to call him on The Offside Trap), doesn’t quite have the speed he used to, even if he has the determination and positioning, and with the two full backs expected to be contributing heavily to the attack, gaps will be present at the back for a smart counterattacking team. Nevertheless, Spain’s defence is solid enough, given that the team plays a possession game, pinging the ball about the midfield and final third, reducing the opposing sides options, generally, to set pieces and counterattacks.
With Xavi and Iniesta, you have arguably the ablest midfield partnership in the world, able to hold on to the ball at will, waiting for the killer pass to present itself. In fact, so ridiculous is Xavi’s skill at picking a teammate out with a clever, short, along-the-ground ball, that I once spent an afternoon trying to replicate his through balls on FIFA 10, a videogame where one is ostensibly able to do things that are not possible in real life, and I couldn’t. If Messi is a “playstation footballer” (Arsene Wenger’s words, not mine), Xavi is a supercomputer.
Watch this clip to understand what I mean.
And that was in the 84th minute, with his side drawing 1-1.
If Spain are able to hold on to the ball, and play their game, they will be, and I shudder when using this word regarding a World Cup prediction, unstoppable. With Villa and Torres up front, the midfield trio outlined (with Xabi Alonso providing much needed stability in the centre of the park) and Pique and Puyol manning the barricades, they’re going to be a very difficult team to beat. The only side that’s managed to do so in recent times, the USA, did so because they stuck to their system, and stifled Spain – much like both Chelsea and Inter Milan did to Barcelona (at heart, this side is Barca, with eight of the 23-man squad on Barca’s books . . . . nine, if you count Cesc Fabregas). As such, expect strong challenges to Spain to come from more defensively organised teams, Brazil in particular. To beat them, then, you have to ensure that they’re not allowed to play their game.
Then again, this is the World Cup, and as el gaffer rightly pointed out to me the other day, Spain’s weak group (Chile, Honduras and Switzerland) will not necessarily help it, as none will likely pose enough of a challenge to give the team adequate preparation for the knockout stages. And once in the knockouts, predictions become very, very dangerous things.
So let’s not say that I think Spain will win the World Cup. Let’s definitely not say that.
Asad H is a London-based full-time journalist and part-time anthropologist. This post was originally published on The Offside Trap here, where he writes as 'el kapitan'.