Pressure on Spain ahead of Chile
Spain's 5-1 thrashing at the hands of the Netherlands on Friday was the country's worst defeat in over 50 years. Manager Vicente del Bosque has said there will be changes to the team for the crucial match against Chile on Wednesday. That was inevitable after a humiliation that is either an aberration not to be repeated or the end of a footballing era, depending on which Spanish paper you read. Where might Del Bosque choose to wield the ax?
Should Diego Costa start?
The Atletico striker spent the final weeks of the season wrapped up in cotton wool, and there were serious doubts as to whether he would be fit enough to participate at the World Cup. Del Bosque clearly thought Costa's direct running would be a weapon to add to the possession-based game that Spain have used to beat all comers over the past six years. It hasn't worked out that way; Costa spent most of Friday evening chasing lost causes down the left and losing possession when he found no teammates in support.
Tournament football is the not the time or place to blindly hope that something clicks into place, and Costa is untested at this level. Del Bosque has a tough decision to make: keep the faith with Costa or revert to the tried and true with Cesc Fabregas in the false nine position.
4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3?
What Del Bosque decides to do in terms of personnel will dictate his lineup. It appears that Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli plans to play a 5-3-2, which means much less space will be available than might normally be the case against a Chile side that tends to commit four or five players into the attack.
A lone forward would require better support than Costa received against the Netherlands, but a front three without a recognised striker runs the risk of getting choked unless they can make use of the wings. That would suggest Pedro and Andres Iniesta lining up on either side of Fabregas. Fernando Torres did little on Friday to further his cause for inclusion, and even Del Bosque, an unabashed admirer of the Chelsea striker, won't hand him a task of this magnitude.
Xavi or Koke?
It was a little like watching a well-loved family dog ponderously pace around his basket until settling down with a grunt for his final night's sleep. Xavi, possibly the finest midfielder of his type of all time, the architect of tiki-taka and the outfield leader of the Spain team, looked lost in Salvador. Although he provided the pass that led to Costa's being tripped in the area, he also conceded possession on several occasions -- unthinkable a year ago -- and faded badly toward the end of the game. It was a surprise that Del Bosque did not substitute Xavi, as his influence waned with the score still at 2-1, but Pedro and Torres were expected to relieve the pressure on Spain's midfield.
Chile will be nowhere near as physical as the Netherlands, but they will be as quick in attack and are well aware that shutting down Xavi is not the impossible task it once was. It is no surprise he is weighing offers from potential retirement homes in the United Arab Emirates. As his anointed successor in the Spain midfield, Koke and his drive could be useful against a very handy Chile side. He should at least expect to get off the bench this time.
Another player pushing to tear up the status quo is the Bayern Munich midfielder/defender. Martinez has been impressive in training, by all accounts, and has adapted to the physicality of the Bundesliga well in a new central defensive role under Pep Guardiola.
Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique have 163 caps between them, but against the Dutch they looked like strangers. Although nobody could have seen Daley Blind's cross coming, Robin van Persie was afforded acres of space. Arjen Robben turned Pique inside-out for the second goal, and both players were caught ball watching for a rather embarrassing fourth. Several times the Dutch could have driven a tank through the gap between the Real and Barça stalwarts, and even then they would have struggled to catch it. They were static and completely outwitted by Robben and Van Persie. As players who like to exploit such space through the middle, Chile's Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas will be watching video replays with great interest.
Cesar Azpilicueta's introduction to tournament football was a harsh initiation. Ajax's Blind was deployed as a wing back on the left, and he gave the Chelsea full-back the run-around for much of the game. Louis van Gaal's lineup was a rough 5-3-2 with Blind and Daryl Janmaat joining the midfield when the Dutch had the ball.
Little wonder, then, that Sampaoli is experimenting with a similar formation. In Eugenio Mena and Mauricio Isla, who linked up well with his forwards in Chile's 3-1 win over Australia, Sampaoli has the personnel to play Spain in the Netherlands' image. Australia soon found a way to nullify Chile's attacking intent and gave a good account of themselves for 70 minutes. Unfortunately for the Socceroos, it was too late as Chile's initial onslaught had left them up 2-0 after 15 minutes.
Del Bosque has to get his team and formation right from the outset against a lightning-quick forward line; whether he sticks with Azpilicueta or calls on the more experienced Juanfran is one of those decisions.