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Five Aside: Matchday 12

Five Aside Jun 23, 2014
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 Posted by Gabriele Marcotti
Jun 18, 2014

The mighty have fallen

This is what the Twilight of the Gods feels like.

After two European Championships and a World Cup, after producing the greatest tactical innovation in international football since those Dutch guys in Oranje gave us "Total Football" in 1974, after proving that three-peat really is a word and after defying time and making us believe they could renew themselves organically and internally, this is it.

It's not the first time world champions exit in the group stage. France did it in 2002, and Italy followed suit in 2010. But in both cases, they at least controlled their own destiny in the third and final game of the group stage. And neither gave up seven goals in two games.

Gotterdammerung.

It's not as if these players will go away. Scan the squad and you struggle to find too many who don't have a shot at Euro 2016 or beyond. Xavi, of course, is set for pasture in the Qatar desert, and David Villa is on a mission from Shekih Mansour in the Big Apple with NYC FC. Xabi Alonso, meanwhile, is 32 and his body, however bionic, has been punished enough.

There are two on the bubble. Iker Casillas? It depends on what happens at club level, but he seems to show no appetite to walk away. Fernando Torres? Chelsea's excuse is his enormous contract and wages make him impossible to sell; it's not clear what Spain's is.

But the others have no reason to exit stage left. They remain key players on important teams, and they have plenty to give.

SpainSpain
ChileChile
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Match 19
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So why the twilight?

Because the myth of La Roja as an enveloping force, based -- largely -- on small, creative players who could turn possession into both a defensive weapon and a crucial ingredient for their space creating sorcery, was undone. And they were undone in more than one way.

Against the Netherlands it was a combination of a packed defence, of the kind they once comfortably unspooled, and the type of individual excellence they previously snuffed out by simply not conceding the ball.

With Chile, meanwhile, it was the tactical brilliance of Jorge Sampaoli, whose teams at times look as if they're playing a different sport entirely, coupled with aggression, workrate, rhythm and, above all, as efficient a use of space as you're likely to see in the modern game. And there's something ironic in that because Chile have small players, too -- tiny ones, in fact. Arturo Vidal, all 5 feet, 11 inches of him, was the tallest starter against Spain. But individual technique and creativity isn't their hallmark. Indeed, with the exception of Vidal, Alexis Sanchez and Jorge Valdivia (who came on as a substitute), you wouldn't describe any of the Chileans as particularly gifted, especially not in relation to the men in red across from them. What they do have though is cohesion, intelligence and the kind of synchronized movements that negate creativity.

If the genius in Vicente del Bosque's Spain was humanist -- players finding themselves on the same creative wavelength and inventing on the spot -- the brilliance of Sampaoli's Chile lies in the machine itself, its creator and the ability of the cogs to work together. There's no other way you get away with playing a back three comprised of two defensive midfielders and a fullback.

Chile may be a team that's greater than the sum of its parts, and the Netherlands a well-drilled unit with a sprinkling of superstars, but neither is a juggernaut and both hammered La Roja. Until 10 days ago, many were convinced that the only teams that could defeat Spain so comprehensively were extremely lucky ones or extremely talented ones. The fact that Chile and the Netherlands are neither is what heralds the end Spain as we know them.

Spain had no answer to Chile at the Maracana.

Del Bosque looked befuddled after the game.

"I thought we prepared very well, we were together for 25 days, we shared some great moments, I thought we were ready. Evidently we were not," he said. "I never imagined we could leave the tournament at this stage. Sometimes you see favorites struggle because they are not as dedicated or because there are problems. This was not the case with us."

"Of course, when things like this happen at this level, well, there will be consequences," he added, foreshadowing a likely resignation.

Is this a manager falling on his sword to protect his own players, who had been steadfastly loyal to him?

Maybe, but he did look genuinely like a guy who did not understand what had gone wrong, apart from giving credit to his opponent.

"In the first half, we were timid, sluggish. They were intense, high-energy, aggressive," Del Bosque said. "It's hard to say why."

- Delaney: The pain for Spain
- Lowe: The future is now
- Cox: Spain undone by their own revolution

Most confusing is the fact that Chile are hardly new to Spain. The two sides played last September in a friendly in Geneva and the world champions were thoroughly outplayed, grabbing a 2-2 draw only through a late equalizer from Jesus Navas.

Back then, Chile played at full throttle and eventually flagged late in the game. You wonder if Del Bosque thought the same would happen again on Wednesday and all he had to do was keep the ball, wait for them to tire and then punish them in the second half.

It's not much of a game plan, but even if that's what he was hoping to do, his guys were outdone early in typical Chilean fashion. Xabi Alonso lost the ball, Alexis Sanchez, Vidal and Charles Aranguiz swooped banshee-like down the right and combined deftly before the latter squared it to Eduardo Vargas.

The forward had been anonymous versus Australia, squandering numerous chances; maybe Casillas and Sergio Ramos thought he'd continue to follow that script. Instead, a subtly weighted touch took the goalkeeper out of the game and an improvised finish, even as Vargas fell on his backside, put Spain ahead.

La Roja's first real shot? A Diego Costa effort into the side netting after 27 minutes. That's how stunned and dull Del Bosque's crew were and the manager stood motionless as the damage was doubled before half-time.

Casillas had another game to forget.

Casillas punched Sanchez's free-kick right into the path of Aranguiz, who stopped it dead before toe-poking home. When the man on whom a big chunk of La Roja's success was built -- San Iker -- makes schoolboy mistakes in consecutive games, you know there's a problem.

Koke came on for Xabi Alonso, clapping and shouting as he took to the pitch. His youth and energy soon dissipated with every errant pass, however. When Sergio Busquets, set up by Diego Costa's overhead kick, missed a sitter after seven minutes of the second period, you felt, even with all that time remaining on the clock, that the game was over and darkness was falling.

One moment, perhaps, epitomized the game. With Spain down 2-0 in the second half, referee Mark Geiger awarded a free kick to Chile. Busquets, who was near the ball, picked it up and took it with him as he trotted away.

It was a classic time-wasting technique: A bit odd given the scoreline, but perhaps intended to break Chile's rhythm. Busquets was instantly surrounded by a posse of angry opponents led by -- who else? -- Gary Medel and relinquished the ball.

It photographed the match: Spain in denial, Chile eager to push on and pile on the punishment, rather than sit on a two goal lead against the world and European champions.

What next? A long stretch of self-analysis. A few changes. And a return, with a partially changed cast and a tweaked script. And without the divinity earned in 2008, 2010 and 2012.

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.