Calm before the storm
Everything was fine here last night until 10.40 Spanish time, when the refs blew their whistles in Bern and Zurich prompting Romania (oh, and France too) to droop off their respective pitches and pack their bags for tomorrow's journey home.
Spain's little stroll in Salzburg on Wednesday continues to be a pleasant stress-free break from the pressures of qualification and from the rivalry of a team who need to win (Greece, of course, are already down and out), but now the shadow of the Italians looms high above the Wals-Siezenheim Stadion. Cue pictures of Luis Enrique's bloody nose in the quarter-finals stage in the USA, 1994, cue the usual national neurosis at times like these. The Spanish camp had been making neutral noises about how there were no easy games and how they were unconcerned as to whom they would face in the quarter-finals, but now that it's not Romania you can feel the vibe beginning to turn.
But that's not the preview, for the time being. Spain play Greece in the final round of the Group D matches in a dead-rubber game whose main interest lies in how the group leader's reserve side will fare against a side who will at least wish to bow out with some dignity. Well, that's what the press are saying about Greece. Whether their players can be bothered to put up a fight against Spain remains an open question.
There are people who disapprove of the tendency of the qualified sides to put out weakened teams for these final games, but you could just as well argue that if you win your opening two games convincingly enough, you earn the right to give the squad members a run-out and rest the stars for the bigger game(s) to come. The other obvious function of this type of game, for Spain in this case, is that players who have not been first-choice up to now can hope to convince the manager of their credentials for the quarter-finals. For this reason alone, it helps if the other side at least puts up a fight. And Greece haven't exactly played badly so far. Neither have they played particularly well, but when they won the tournament last time out they were hardly hammering teams either. The main difference now is that their defence has lost its shine, and the minimalist approach has not paid off. If they decide to attack against the Spanish - and all the declarations of intent suggest that they will - then we could be in for an entertaining game. Certainly, Spain do not need yet another side that they can pass to death, but rather a team who puts their defence under something resembling the sort of pressure that the improving Italians will exert.
Whatever, the Spanish papers on Tuesday were full of the news that Luis Aragonés was on his way to Turkey (Fenerbahce) after the tournament, instead of getting out his pipe and slippers and retiring gracefully. Turkey will be enough to finish the old man off for ever - a pleasing prospect for his detractors, but meanwhile the tabloid Marca's revelation of this news, at this point in the tournament, has predictably annoyed the old grump. Nevertheless, he managed not to lose it during Tuesday's Q & A with the press, limiting himself to the fact that everyone knew he was going anyway, and that his agent is 'working on things'. It would be interesting if he were to follow the footsteps of Vicente Del Bosque, who went to Besiktas after a lifetime in La Liga - only to return and wait for this moment to succeed Aragonés after this tournament. Ah - the sweet scent of youth!
But let's back to the match. Dani Güiza, La Liga's top scorer this season past with 27 goals, has so far not figured at all, but should be in from the start against Greece. His motivation will be normal or extra, depending on whether he really fancies taking up the recent offer from Fenerbahce (again) to join them for the coming season. They've offered to pay him three million euros a season, but Barcelona remains the striker's more likely destination. The Catalans are famous for being a bit careful with their money, but one suspects that they could cough up this amount for Dani Boy too. All of which means that he needs to put himself into the shop window one more time at least, on the big stage.
He should be accompanied by Zaragoza's Sergio Garcia, another player whose main motive is also to put himself on the market for after the tournament. The player's most probable destination would now appear to be Sevilla, but it's not clear. Garcia is no slouch, but the truth is that if Tamudo had had a half decent season and/or Bojan had decided to come along for the ride, Garcia would have been on his vacations now, watching the tournament on the telly. However well he plays, he's unlikely to repeat against Italy. Güiza could participate later on in that game, as an alternative to the 'pass to death' approach, and with this in mind Aragonés will be keen to see if his more physical presence can ruffle the Greek defence.
Then again, you do wonder if all this 'resting' is a good idea. David Villa hinted as much on Monday, saying that he would prefer to be picked to play against Greece, to keep the engine ticking over. Aragonés is unlikely to take the hint, but it's a fair point from Europe's man of the moment. Why keep a good man down when he's just hit his peak? Well, the risk of losing him for the Italian match is too serious to contemplate, as it is in the case of Torres too. The only problem is going to be the link-up between the new midfield and the forwards. Xabi Alonso looks likely to be handed the job of the holding player, supported by the roaming Cesc and Rubén De la Red. Cazorla, whom Aragonés has been picking out for rare public praise, looks like missing it through a niggling injury, so Iniesta, who still needs to gain match fitness, looks set to play too (probably the only 'first-teamer' who will do so), so it's a very offensive, flexible line-up. Alonso will sit the deepest, but in truth his passing range always defines him as an attacking midfielder. The forwards have a whole host of soldiers behind them to supply the bullets, but the suppliers themselves will also be looking to pull the triggers. Expect goals, and expect some to come from the middle-men.
More interesting still will be how the defence copes, assuming Greece can motivate themselves for one last showing. Albiol and Juanito should be at centre-back, and a really good performance might see one of them replace Puyol against Italy, if the hairy one doesn't shake off his injury. Arbeloa and Navarro should be the full-backs, and again, if Arbeloa does a decent job, he might even keep his place and see Ramos moved to the centre, where most people want to see him anyway.
So things to look out for. Most of all, Spain won't want to emulate Portugal, and lose some of the momentum that they have been gathering. Like Holland and Croatia, they'll be wanting to hammer home the message that they can win first-choice or second string, and that the quality runs deep.