Impressive Spain trounce All Whites
On Sunday evening, the Spanish national team put an end to their relaxing five-day stay at Rustenburg by easily demolishing New Zealand 5-0 in their first Confederations Cup match.
The team has been made to feel very welcome in South Africa, and that good atmosphere, plus these last few days of preparation, have apparently allowed the Spanish players to recover a bit of the spark they had during the season.
At the end of Thursday's impressive training session, gaffer Vicente del Bosque, who counts Real Madrid amongst his former clubs, stated that: "I have managed very talented players before, but I had never seen a group as skilled as this one".
Those skills were evident early into Sunday's match. The Spanish squad came out wanting to take care of business quickly, and exploited New Zealand's right flank mercilessly. Albert Riera and Joan Capdevila found plenty of space behind All White right-back Dave Mulligan, who will be having nightmares about red shirts for some nights to come.
Fernando Torres was the main beneficiary of the Spanish duo's hard work. The Liverpool striker scored a 12-minute hat-trick, thanks to the great service he received, as well as to his own clinical finishing. Shortly thereafter, Cesc Fàbregas added Spain's fourth, also courtesy of a selfless pass from Capdevila. After only 24 minutes, the competitive side of the match was over for all intents and purposes.
From that point onwards, Spain easily kept possession and focused on helping David Villa surpass Fernando Hierro's 29 goals for the national team. Villa only managed to score once after a missed clearance by Kiwi centre-back Andy Boyens, so the asturiano is now tied with Hierro and 15 goals behind Raúl González.
After playing with a classic 4-4-2 for almost 60 minutes, Del Bosque resorted to a 4-1-4-1 formation for the final 30 minutes, with Xabi Alonso in front of the back four and Riera, David Silva, Cesc and Santi Cazorla playing behind Villa. This tactical variation was frequently used by Del Bosque's predecessor, Luis Aragonés. It is hard to evaluate how well it worked this time, as at that point the proceedings on the pitch barely resembled a competitive match.
The Spanish squad leave for Bloemfontein on Monday morning, where they will play against Iraq on Wednesday evening. Fernando Torres, whose 12-minute hat-trick became the fastest in Spain's national team history, won FIFA's man of the match award; a brilliant Sunday night for the Liverpool player and another great outing for the team formerly known as the armada.
Spain verdict: Impressive once again. The players made spectacular use of space, their ball movement was dizzyingly fast at times and they were lethal in front of goal. The team looked like they were having fun - a sign of great things to come.
Spain's classy left side was enough to finish off the Kiwis in just 25 minutes, but the whole first half was another example of Cesc's inability to play on the right wing. He only looked like himself when he occupied a more central position after Xavi Hernandez was replaced. A more balanced attack, with more production coming from the right, will be mandatory if Spain want to beat the likes of Brazil or Italy.
New Zealand verdict: Simply awful. It is hard to believe this is the same team that gave Italy a run for their money just a week ago. Their defending was atrocious for the first 30 minutes, and they only managed to enjoy a decent spell of ball possession at the end of the first half, when they were already trailing by four.
"We lost to the best team in the world currently", Kiwi coach Ricki Herbert said after the match. He also offered some endearing optimism: "We grew as the match progressed". Hosts South Africa are the All Whites' next opponent, a match they can't afford to lose if they want to make it into the next round.
Referee verdict: Very good. Mr Codjia, "the pride of Benin", realised quickly this would be an easy match and did nothing at all to get himself into trouble.
Stadium verdict: Just fine. Originally designed to host rugby and track & field events, its recent refurbishment has been quite successful, even though the annoying running track was kept untouched. Nice view of the pitch, 44,000 all seated capacity, brand new facilities (bars, food, toilets), great sound system... job well done.
Fan verdict: Well below expectations, but it's not the fans' fault. First, tickets from €6 to €60 are pricey for the average South African. But more importantly, the scarce (and "scarce" is an understatement) public transportation does not help supporters travel to the Royal Bafokeng Stadium either. Its hometown name, Rustenburg, apparently means "right in the middle of nowhere" in the local dialect, so you can imagine it's not easy to get there, and it's even harder to leave after the match is over.
Those who managed to make it to the match were an extremely enthusiastic and noisy bunch, but the sight of an almost empty stadium when the European Champions play should be worrying enough for the local 2010 World Cup committee to implement further measures to increase fan attendance.
Gossip level verdict: Deafening. 90% of the discussions in the media hotel and every question during press conferences this past week were devoted to the silly season. It got to such a level that the Spanish Federation media manager tried to ban non-Confederations Cup related questions, which almost provoked a boycott by the journalists.
Villa's potential signing for Real Madrid was the mother of all gossip this week. The vast majority of the media are surprised with Florentino Perez' recent change of approach: it does not seem sensible to try to bargain a player's price when you have already paid full price for others.
While FloPe was negotiating, Barcelona moved in, apparently intending to increase Villa's price tag and therefore making Real Madrid pay more. In any case, the general sentiment is that Villa will play in Madrid next season, even if the merengues end up having to shell out more cash than everyone expected... one again.