Three Points: Old guard rally for Spain
CURITIBA, Brazil -- Three thoughts on Spain's 3-0 win over Australia in the final game of Group B.
1. Vintage strike force given one last chance
In a telling example of Spain's need for renovation, manager Vicente del Bosque started the same strike duo that led the team to Euro '08 success under Luis Aragones. Amid a testimonial atmosphere in Curitiba, six years later Fernando Torres and David Villa joined forces against Australia in what was very likely their final match -- individually or together -- for the Spanish national team.
Unlike the previous game at this World Cup, both players looked engaged and active: Torres gave frequent passing options to his midfield teammates; Villa looked more incisive and ended up scoring with a beautiful backflick from a cross from Atletico Madrid's Juanfran.
However, replaced by Juan Mata after only 57 minutes, Villa left the pitch in anger and burst into tears on the bench. The striker, as natural a goal scorer as you will find, desperately wanted to play until the very end of his last match with Spain. It is unlikely that his 59-goal tally in 96 matches will be surpassed.
Surprisingly enough, Torres stayed on the pitch, becoming the only striker to play all three matches for Spain in Brazil, and eventually scored his 38th goal in the famous red shirt. And in all fairness, it was the will of both forwards to bid their farewell to the national team in style that kept the team's drive for all 90 minutes, won the match for Spain and avoided an even more frustrating end to this World Cup.
Nevertheless, when one looks at a 3-0 result, with Villa and Torres opening the scoring, it's hard to believe it's 2014; that probably makes the fact Spain are heading home after only three matches a bit easier to understand.
2. The Socceroos look exhausted
A neutral observer would have fancied the Socceroos' chances to upset the soon-to-be-deposed world champions before this match started. Their impressive level of energy against Netherlands and Chile, compared to Spain's dismal performances and obvious lack of hunger versus the same two rivals, painted a potentially rosy picture for a famous Australian win.
Indeed, they kicked off as intensely as expected, putting a decent amount of pressure on Spain and making their players work hard for each pass. Olivier Bozanic impressed with and without the ball, while Mile Jedinak and Matt McKay dealt with the Spanish midfield easily.
Up front, however, Tim Cahill's absence was evident and the Socceroos' gas lasted for only 30 minutes. Exhausted following two commendable efforts in their previous matches, the high pressing game disappeared, allowing the Spaniards plenty of time to build their plays. When Villa scored Spain's first after 35 minutes, the contest looked over. Andres Iniesta had taken over central midfield, feeding Villa and Torres constantly and making Australia's back four look late in almost every play.
Coach Ange Postecoglou tried to revive his men with three substitutions during the second half, but only Mark Bresciano managed to give the side some intensity. It was too little, too late. The Aussies should regret this wasted opportunity: It's unlikely that they will find themselves up against such a weak, demoralized, Spain squad again in the future.
3. Cracks appearing at an unfinished stadium
Its construction plagued by endless discussions between the mayor, the state governor and Atletico Paranaense's management, the Arena da Baixada stadium quickly became FIFA's biggest concern for this World Cup. At some point, even the words "change of venue" were uttered, but the final commitment of the owners avoided what would otherwise represent a logistical nightmare.
Works accelerated and the arena finally looked ready -- and extremely impressive -- but two areas clearly show that some trade-offs took place. The access to the stadium and its surrounding areas still need a lot of investment and, more importantly, the state of the pitch after three matches is simply awful.
Because of the delayed works, grass was only planted less than two weeks before the tournament started. Cutting some additional corners, Atletico Paranaense's management decided not to buy the special type of lamps recommended by FIFA that allow the grass to photosynthesize without natural light -- the stadium is almost fully covered -- and therefore enhances rapid growth. The young grass lasted for just one match -- that drab encounter between Nigeria and Iran. During Honduras vs. Ecuador, cracks started to show up everywhere on the pitch and, after 15 minutes of the Torres and Villa testimonial, the state of the ground was simply appalling.
The growing holes generated two injury scares during the second half, happily resolved without major consequences. But the metaphor was clear: miracles rarely happen when organising a top-level tournament, and if you test your luck, the cracks will appear sooner rather than later.