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 Posted by Gabriele Marcotti
Jun 18, 2014

Tough decisions galore for Spain

Stuart Holden joins the FC crew to preview the intriguing matchday 7 matchups including Australia vs Netherlands and Chile vs Spain.

Time is famously relative. If you're having a blast, it tends to fly by. If you're stuck in traffic or being nagged by your better half, it moves slowly.

Weirdly, depth in a squad works the same way. It's great to have options when you're winning: it keeps everyone on their toes and allows you to rotate and keep players fresh. When you're struggling though, more depth can equal more questions and more second-guessing. And that's where Vicente del Bosque finds himself.

By the time La Roja take the pitch for Wednesday's clash against Chile they'll know whether it's a win-or-go-home situation. And it will be, unless the Southern Cross falls out of the heavens on Louis van Gaal's head and the Dutch somehow fail to beat the Socceroos.

Friday's humiliation in Salvador left its mark on the goal difference table, which is important because Brazil (barring an implosion, which is not as improbable as it appeared a day ago) is up next for whoever finishes second. To what degree it scarred the Spanish players is what del Bosque must assess.

"Look, for 40 minutes Spain were far, far superior to the Netherlands," said Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli. "It was just a series of imponderables that led to the huge defeat ... much of the criticism they received was unfair in my opinion. If [David] Silva puts away the chance and makes it two-nil then it's a different game."

To a point, he's right. To a point, he's engaging in gracious coach-speak. And it's irrelevant -- to a point -- because that "minus 4" is there and looms huge.

We know that del Bosque isn't about to change systems. The only possible tweak anyway would be dispensing with his "double pivot" -- the twin rocks of Gibraltar, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso -- and leaving just one ball-winner with two passers in his midfield three. It's what he tried without much success at the Confederations Cup last summer -- with that setup, they were trounced by Brazil right here at the Maracana in the final -- and perhaps what he should have used against the Dutch.

Against Sampaoli's high-octane, intoxicating "organized chaos," however, a bit of slow-down and stability wouldn't go amiss, which is why, most likely, that part of the scheme will go unchanged.

Del Bosque has a host of options but little leeway to get it right vs. Chile.
Del Bosque has a host of options but little leeway to get it right vs. Chile.

And so it becomes about personnel. Iker Casillas had a stinker in the opener, but his résumé -- and the fact that, objectively, he has shown the aptitude to bounce back on many occasions -- means he retains his place. Javi Martinez will likely come into the mix somewhere, most likely at centre-back, though perhaps for one of the holding midfielders. He has size -- which matters on set pieces when you consider that Gonzalo Jara, all 5-foot-10 of him, is Chile's biggest defender -- fresh legs and no ghosts to exorcise. Juanfran could come in at full-back, possibly with Cesar Azpilicueta swapping flanks to replace an out-of-sorts Jordi Alba and provide a more stable back four.

Koke? Not just yet. The passing of the baton from Xavi -- who by all accounts, appears to be Qatar-bound next season -- will happen at some point, but the Barcelona legend deserves (and will get) a shot at redemption. It's worth noting that before he tired in the second half, he was arguably Spain's best player.

- Hunter: Villa seeks repeat of 2010
- Delaney: Forget style, Spain just need to win
- 50-50 Challenge: Spain vs. Chile
- Alvarez: Sanchez set for starring role

It's in the front three where the permutations are endless. The first, obvious, thought is that this team could have done with Jesus Navas and Fernando Llorente against Chile. Both are simply different to any other Spain player, and both -- the former with his blistering pace, the latter with his hulking aerial threat -- would have come in handy versus Sampaoli's talented but Lilliputian troops. Navas, of course, was out of del Bosque's hands, but the Llorente snub must haunt him.

So what does del Bosque do?

Andres Iniesta is a dead certainty for the same reasons as Xavi. Then it gets tricky.

Start with the centre-forward. If Diego Costa seemed ineffectual, star-crossed and downright loopy in Salvador while getting abused by the heavily Brazilian crowd, imagine what it might be like at the Maracana with twice as many there to boo him. Then again, this is a player who thrives when he gets the ball in space and, against Sampaoli-led teams, there is often space behind the back line.

Xavi will be given a chance to redeem himself, but who will partner him in midfield?
Xavi will be given a chance to redeem himself, but who will partner him in midfield?

The same concept might also favor the inclusion of Fernando Torres, though again, it takes some pretty big stones to put your faith in the Chelsea striker given his form over the past, oh, four years or so.

David Villa? That would be an emotional choice. The New York City-bound poacher is arguably the worst fit out of the three front men, isn't coming off a great season at club level and, arguably, has less in the tank than the other two.

Then there's the third slot. Again, an abundance of riches, but not much variety. There's a school of thought that demands the inclusion of Pedro because he's the quickest and most direct of Spain's attackers. Fine. But do that and the possession game becomes that little bit trickier, and playing keep-away is not a bad approach to take against Chile.

David Silva is another who had a rough time in the opener; del Bosque must assess whether it's a sign that he's fired up and ready to bounce back or if his funk is more permanent. Cesc Fabregas? Possibly. At least now that his future is resolved and we know that his mind is clear following a confirmed move to Chelsea.

And then there's Juan Mata and Santi Cazorla, two guys who, in many ways, epitomize del Bosque's problem. It's not that they lack quality; they just don't add variety to the team as two more hugely gifted but not particularly speedy or athletic pint-sized creative winger/forward hybrids on a team that already has plenty. Both would sashay into 28 of the 32 starting XIs at the World Cup. Both seem redundant right now.

The Spain camp were saying all the right things ahead of the game. "I work with great players from great clubs; I don't expect them to simply accept failure," del Bosque said.

Iniesta, too, sounded the charge: "We just need a win; how we get it is less of a priority."

You can't really argue with arithmetic here. And in fact, the reality goes further than that. Barring Netherlands versus Australia moving into the twilight zone with a Socceroos result -- Mathew Leckie did talk about "putting a few goals" past the Netherlands, prompting guffaws from a Dutch journalist -- Spain won't just need to win, they'll need to run up the score, something they tend not to do. Otherwise the conspiracy theorists will be out in force, given that a two-goal defeat by the Dutch in the final group game against Chile could still see both teams advance with the Netherlands in first place.

Del Bosque warned against complacency before this World Cup. Many believe he was right to do so and then questioned his decision not to change. The thing about complacency, though, is that there's a reason certain players and tactics worked in the first place to get you where you are. Deciding when and how to make changes is where a manager earns his bacon.

Gabriele Marcotti

A London-based journalist and broadcaster who covers world soccer, he is the author of three books, the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere dello Sport. You can catch him on ESPN FC TV and read him here twice a week.