Goal controversy overshadows Spain's planning in Mali victory
MUMBAI -- "I knew that's what I was going to be asked about. That goal." It was with a resigned shrug that Spain under-17 coach Santiago Denia addressed his first question on Wednesday evening.
Spain had just qualified for the final of the U17 World Cup, putting three goals past pre-tournament favourites Mali. Yet the main topic of his postmatch news conference -- a 30-yard strike from Cheick Oumar Doucoure which bounced off the bar and over the line, but was not given, at 2-0 -- was something which was not the turning point everyone at the DY Patil Stadium seemed to think it was.
The 43-year-old isn't the most likable coach at this World Cup: he doesn't have the easy laugh of Ghana's Kwasi Febin, the charm of Mali's Jonas Komla, or the way with words of England's Steve Cooper. Denia is a "get the job done" sort of guy and leaves little room for mistakes. That's understandable. Charm wouldn't have helped the former central defender become part of Atletico Madrid's La Liga winning team in 1995 and now he has made it to the U17 World Cup finals.
Yet it was hard not to feel just a little bit for him on Wednesday night. Spain played a terrific game against a team that had proved an irresistible force for much of the competition; they won despite being significantly weaker physically, which had forced them to play exactly how they wanted to avoid.
In their journey to the finals, if you had to reduce the essence of Spain's football to one word it would be possession. They had looked to keep the ball at all costs; numb opponents into madness as they chased the ball from one red shirt to another.
In victory, Spain took this to extremes. In group games against Niger and North Korea, they held the ball 63 percent and 78 percent of the time. In the quarterfinal against Iran, that number was 76 percent with one goal in the 3-1 win produced after a string of 26 passes.
Spain had looked to play the same way against Mali and, against a side that had breathtaking speed on the counter, that made most sense. "We will try to avoid a transitional game. That will only help Mali," Denia had said ahead of the match.
But Mali refused them that room to play with. They packed their 4-1-4-1 lines together, leaving no space in the midfield. Deprived of space to indulge in short passes, Spain adapted and made the most of the fact that Mali's tight lines left plenty of spaces behind the defence.
Cesar Gelabert was left free for a long run down the right flank before eventually earning a penalty. Abel Ruiz converted and then netted another when Gelabert's perfectly weighted pass found him clear of the Mali defence in the 43rd minute.
At no point, though, did Mali give up. They routinely threated Spain, with 29 attempts on goal -- though only four on target -- and continued to press their opponents until they tired.
In Spain's opening match against Brazil they had seemingly run out of steam by the final quarter and, when their plan to control possession and tempo of the game failed, it might have been a turning point. Indeed at the end of the match, both teams had exactly the same (50 percent) possession.
Yet Spain had a plan for this eventuality too. "The idea was to avoid playing a lot of transition because they take too much energy," Denia said. "The idea was to keep the ball. But you actually have to play on the field. So we were very careful in backing up our defence if we were playing transitions. We like to play passing game but we have players who play transitions. So we managed."
By the end, it was Mali that appeared more exhausted at the final whistle. Perhaps it could be argued that the Africans might have found a second wind had the goal they claimed been given. Yet it is just as likely that Spain, who added a third through Ferran Torres just minutes after the controversy and held firm after Lassana N'Diaye's consolation, might have finished stronger still.
Denia certainly thought so. "We were playing well when it happened. I don't think that goal would have changed the match. At least it wasn't going to be easy," he said.