Renovation work needed for Spain
SALVADOR, Brazil -- The excruciating experience of watching your idols undergo complete humiliation in a live sports event does not often happen for fans of the Spanish national side. However, Friday night in Salvador saw the current world champions collapse thanks to an abysmal second-half performance at the hands of a bloodthirsty Dutch side.
Plenty of the questions that were asked of the squad before this tournament kicked off found their answers in emphatic fashion. Does Iker Casillas still deserve the "No. 1 keeper in the world" tag? Could the veteran Xavi Hernandez be still inspiring and useful for one last title challenge? Does the quintessential false No. 9 team work with a real No. 9, such as Diego Costa?
In a cruel twist of fate, the responses did look affirmative for a decent spell of the first half. Casillas saved a glorious chance from Wesley Sneijder after just eight minutes, leading many to instantly conclude that the Dutch suffer some kind of Iker syndrome (skipping back to Arjen Robben's effort which was saved in similar style in 2010's final). Then, after 27 minutes and several awkward attempts to find Costa, Xavi finally launched a pinpoint pass to the centre-forward, who took advantage of a reckless challenge from Stefan de Vrij and earned a questionable penalty. Xabi Alonso put the Spaniards in front and it appeared that things would go to plan. The famed possession game would surely carve another opening while denying the Dutch time on the ball.
In fact, that chance came right before half-time when Andres Iniesta played a marvellous through ball to David Silva, who unsuccessfully tried to lob Dutch keeper Jasper Cillessen.
It was the opportunity to put the match to bed, but what followed would hit the Spanish fans harder. In the following Dutch attack, Daley Blind launched a wonderful diagonal ball, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos misread the situation and allowed Robin van Persie to ghost in and plant a wonderful diving header past Casillas, who had been caught in no-man's-land. The Dutch celebrated the goal as if they'd just won the World Cup; the seeds of doubt were already placed in the hearts of the Spanish.
Vocal discussions among the fans over who was to blame for the goal did not hide two main issues: the forward line doesn't flow as well with Costa (who clearly misses a long-range passer such as Koke), and Casillas is not confident enough on current form to deal with the sheer number of attacks mounted by the Dutch.
As the tropical rain beat down, Spain looked painfully unfit to weather the Dutch storm in the second half, but soon found themselves up against a monsoon. After eight minutes, Robben dribbled past Pique as though the centre-back wasn't there and scored easily -- albeit with the help of a deflection. Two minutes later, Van Persie hit the post and Fernando Torres' arrival from off the bench to replace Costa did little to raise the Spanish spirits.
Del Bosque's decision to take Costa off -- probably a result of a mixture between the Lagarto-born striker's strained relationship with his midfielders and his head-butt on Dutch defender Bruno Martins Indi (which may yet see him punished) -- was unsurprising, but the introduction of a striker who peaked over six years ago was odd.
Moreover, instead of resorting to a more familiar false No. 9 formation, Del Bosque decided to play with only one defensive midfielder -- Sergio Busquets -- and replaced Xabi Alonso with winger Pedro. It was a huge offensive gamble to get back into the game, but it did not pay off.
Indeed, as the rain continued to pour, the Spaniards saw everything going the Dutch way, and showed all the same flaws that plagued them in the Confederations Cup final a year ago: they could not win a 50-50 ball; they were late to every challenge; the space between defence and midfield looked huge.
And on top of that, their keeper collapsed. If there were doubts about Casillas' performance after the first two goals, the following two showcased his obvious shortcomings with painful accuracy. Poor in the air, he lost the ball for De Vrij's header (although was bumped by Van Persie as he jumped), then his awful first touch off a back pass presented Manchester United's centre forward with the easiest goal possible.
To add insult to injury, 10 minutes before time Robben lifted a huge weight off his shoulders as he finally defeated Iker in the one-on-one. Ironic that the stopper was only 60-odd minutes away from breaking Walter Zenga's clean sheet record at a World Cup, but that's the way it goes sometimes.
While the Dutch could have scored six, Spain still tried to pull one back in order to improve their minus-4 goal difference, but Torres, ineffective since his arrival, could not convert when he should have from just yards out.
The most painful realisation the defeat has brought to the average Spanish supporters is that so much time has been wasted since Euro 2012 with no renovation work done on the team. The lack of fresh blood, and a very long domestic season, each played a part on the tired legs of the Spaniards in Salvador, and now Del Bosque has seen his renovation window reduced from two years to two matches.
The question is: How far will the Marquis go in his changes to the side for next Wednesday's now-crucial match against Chile? If he looks to the future and considers the next two matches as the beginning of the preparation for Euro 2016, then his starting XI might do the job in Brazil. After such a heavy defeat, a bit of hope for the future is sorely needed.