Tough Road Ahead
Holland and Argentina annoyed everyone (including their own supporters) by leaving out several key players for their final group game, thereby blunting the potential excitement of such a resonant fixture.
But their tinkering pales in comparison to Spain's decision to play the whole reserve team against Saudi Arabia, if the concept 'reserve team' in truth exists. Manager Luis Aragonés argued that it didn't, and that it was simply a case of certain players being 'favoured'. He further argued that all the players needed to have competitive run-outs, to keep them sharp for the knock-out phase.
Well ok - the policy has some logic, and it rests the 'favoured' ones too, but in the end everyone ends up complaining. Spain only won 1-0, although they should have scored a dozen in the first half, but then took their foot off the gas and could have lost the game eventually, a result which would have wounded the good morale built up so carefully in the camp.
'Reserve' teams are good at beating the favoured ones in training camp work-outs, but tend to look a little lost when it comes to real games. They then get lambasted by the press for not winning 12-1, a score that Spain ran up against Malta in 1984, and one which was quoted by both Marca and As in their run-up to the Saudi game. Perhaps one should not take the nation's pulse from these annoying newspapers, but their smug condescension towards Saudi was a sentiment that comes from somewhere, and it is one which is also contagious.
Before the game, it was hard to find anyone amongst my circle here who didn't feel that it wouldn't be a thrashing. Aragonés was probably the only person who thought otherwise, and he was proved right. In the end, what Spain react to best is a clear and straightforward objective, and in the game France they will certainly have that. It would be wrong to see the Saudi game as a blip in the otherwise excellent campaign so far.
Nevertheless, one thing that Aragonés will have concluded from the run-out is that he had probably chosen correctly for the Ukraine and Tunisia games. Reyes looked good in the first half, making the goal with a vicious out-swinging free-kick, but once again he failed to stamp his authority on the match for more than 45 minutes. In the end, it was the Saudi midfielder Noor who looked the best player on the park. Joaquin, the other wide man alternative for the right, looked wonderful for most of the game, but failed to score from a host of opportunities, many of which he made for himself. Given the naivety of much of the Saudi defending, Joaquín took full advantage and ran riot down the wing, but in the end, the score was only 1-0.
Those who are uncomfortable at Aragonés' reluctance to play two wide men have to accept the fact that not only have the wide men not given Spain goals, they also allow too much space in the centre of midfield to be exploited by opponents. There were times in the second half when Saudi carved out chances far too easily. They forgave, but France are unlikely to be so profligate.
Still, it was nice to watch Joaquín while it lasted. He's like some throwback to a bygone age, when wingers were wingers and everyone thought that cigarettes were good for you. At times he looks like Stan Matthews, at others Stan Laurel, which is the problem basically. Spain have more consistent midfielders than him, and it is they who have got the squad this far. Xavi, Cesc, Alonso, Senna and Iniesta have all looked, at some moment or other, perfectly capable of holding the reins. Torres is suddenly on fire (he was given a quick run-out against Saudi in the 2nd half, just to keep him on the boil), Villa is a hungry little chap and Raúl has no intention of ceding his place in the team to anyone.
In terms of a Group League Table, Spain came top of the 32. 'Somos el coco' (We are tops!) pronounced the tabloid Marca on the day after the Saudi game, pointing out correctly that of the 4 teams who finished on maximum points, Spain had the best goal difference - eight scored and one conceded. France, their next opponents, came way down in 13th place, but no-one is pretending that Spain are the favourites to win the game.
Whatever, Tuesday's match looks the tastiest of the eight pairings. It's going to be very interesting, particularly given that the initial French reaction has been to point out that they like the fact that Spain 'play', but 'allow you to play' at the same time - as opposed to Togo, for example. France's excuse at playing poorly so far seems to be based on the idea that all their opponents have parked the bus on the edge of their areas, but that Spain will not.
Indeed they won't. Aragonés will revert to the side that he seems to prefer, using Alonso as the centre holding man, probably accompanied by Xavi and Senna. If he errs on the side of caution, he might even start with Albelda in place of Xavi, just to see how France intend to play it, but I don't think so. He seems to be finally convinced that his 'flamenco' side is the one most likely to take them through, as opposed to the 'fury' version. He might even start with Iniesta, in a four-man midfield. Up front, it will be interesting to see if he starts with Villa or Raúl to accompany Torres, now accepted as the team's star of the show. Torres has no doubt been enjoying the plaudits, since in Spain the jury is still out on whether he really is effective or not. For some, he is the product of three years of insubstantial hype, and when he comes up against a truly decent side, he'll be found wanting.
Decent side? France can beat anyone on their day, but when did they last have one? They must be wary of a Spanish side which has run into such good form. Historically speaking, France have nothing to fear, since the six times they have met Spain in official competition the French have ended with five wins, and the other result was a draw.
The game is bringing back bad memories for the Spanish, particularly of the Paris final of the European Championships in 1984, when Spain's goalie Arconada famously allowed Platini's free-kick to squirm beneath his body - yet another of the catalogue of high-profile clangers the Spanish seem to have dropped at all the wrong moments in their footballing history. They'd be very happy to banish these memories to the back of the collective consciousness, and set out on a new road that would lead them most likely to a quarter-final showdown against Brazil.
As the old cliché goes, there are no easy games from now on, but Spain seem to have a tough road ahead, well though they have performed up to now. If they can win the next two, the sky would surely be the limit.