David De Gea and Aritz Aduriz shine in mediocre Spain performance
Over on the touchline Aritz Aduriz's number was up, but he hadn't seen it yet. He was too focused on the ball Cesc Fabregas was about to send swinging into the penalty area: his last ball. Pretty much his first, too. So in it went, Alvaro Morata headed it down, Gigi Buffon pushed it out and there was Aduriz, barely a yard away, falling into the post, to lift the ball into the net. Spain were level, 1-1 in Udine in Thursday's international friendly.
As the teams headed back to the middle, Aduriz headed off to the touchline to be replaced by David Silva. There were 19 minutes left and Aduriz's last act was the goal that rescued a draw for Spain and may have secured his inclusion in the squad for this summer's European Championships in France. His first goal for Spain on his first start. At 35 years and 42 days, he was the oldest player to ever start for Spain. Only two older players had ever scored. But then the way Aduriz has it, age is just a number.
Aduriz -- who plays his club football for Athletic Bilbao -- had only played for the
In Italy, he did what he does these days and scored, but he hadn't always. Not quite like this, anyway. His is a curious case, a player not only continuing to play well into footballing "old" age, but starting to.
As a first division striker, Aduriz's league totals read: 6, 9, 7, 11, 12, 10, 7, 14, 16, 18 and 17* (*with eight games still remaining). And, yes, that list is in chronological order. His four best seasons, by some margin, are his last four, each of them after his 30th birthday and each better than the last. Aduriz averaged 0.29 goals a game until he was 31; since then he's over a goal every other game.
This season he reached Christmas having scored more than Spain's other strikers Diego Costa, Paco Alcacer and Alvaro Morata combined. No wonder people wanted him in the national team. "If everyone says 'Aduriz, Aduriz, Aduriz', we're not going to act like we're smarter than everyone else," the Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said. He even called Aduriz the "prototype of what a striker should be".
So, eventually, he did get called up. "Beyond the goal, I want to highlight the fact that Aduriz adapted perfectly to the way we play," Del Bosque said, but the bottom line was that given a start, he scored. He could hardly have been more effective. "Aduriz did what he had to do and took the chance he got," Del Bosque said.
"The chance," was a pretty accurate assessment. It was the chance, the only one. "[David] De Gea and Aduriz send a fax," the headline in AS said. As metaphors go it was an odd one, and De Gea doesn't have happy experiences of fax machines, but you knew what they meant. Yet if Aduriz and De Gea had sent faxes -- "take me to the Euros, Vicente" -- no one else really had.
There were moments from Alvaro Morata, a striker playing a wider role the way that David Villa used to, but not much else at the Friuli stadium. That chance really was
Not only did De Gea start here, it was telling that Del Bosque recently insisted that Iker Casillas would be a "good substitute". In other words, he would accept it; he would not be a problematic element in the camp, even if he did not play. In saying so, you could almost sense Del Bosque's relief. Casillas will probably play against Romania on Sunday, his 167th cap, but De Gea's inclusion here appeared to be a message.
The debate (who should be the goalkeeper, De Gea or Casillas?) had given way to a wait: When will Del Bosque admit that it has to be De Gea? The wait appears to be over.
Other debates remain, two months from the Euros. Marca called this poor performance "disquietening", while El Pais noted: "lots of tests ... and none of them convinced."
Worse, the old certainties seemed less certain. Del Bosque had talked about his desire to speed up the transitions, to quicken counter-attacks, but his team didn't really and, in any case, he would not have wanted that to come at the cost of what makes Spain, Spain.
At one end, there was Aduriz; at the other, De Gea. And not much in between. The men who define the seleccion were absent, or might as well have been. All those technical midfielders you usually see constantly on the ball were hardly seen at all. Thiago, Juan Mata, Isco, and Silva barely appeared; Fabregas did but his impact was limited.
Possession was not solely Spain's. There was little creation, little fluidity, little flow. None of the control that defines Spain. Or did.
Inevitable, perhaps. This was, after all, a friendly, in the week before the Clasico and the same night as a vital U21 match against Croatia which, by the manager's own admission, left them without Hector Bellerin and Saul. It was the kind of game for which injuries that don't normally stop players from playing hurt enough to pull out, a game for which there had been just two training sessions.
There was no Sergio Busquets and no Andres Iniesta, vital when it comes to imposing that identity, both of whom will start at the Euros this summer. Silva began on the bench, even though Del Bosque hinted that he has become an undisputed starter. Santi Cazorla is injured, Thiago is just coming back from injury, and while Del Bosque insists that Fabregas has not played so badly this season, he hasn't played so well, either. They're the players who perhaps best express Spain's style, but time will be needed.
Ah, time. Whether they get it is another matter: Spain's squad will be named before the Champions League and Europa League finals in May, both of which are likely to have Spanish teams in them, maybe even two of them. Heading into Euros, there will be a nervous wait, little preparation, friendlies played without the full squad.
There are two months left and things can change, candidates can make or break a case, injuries can ruin the best-laid plans. There are still some doubts. Mata, Cazorla, Isco, Koke, Saul, Thiago, San Jose, and Fabregas are too many midfielders, especially when Silva, Busquets and Iniesta will be included. Who goes and who doesn't? Can Alcacer, Aduriz, Morata, Costa and Pedro all go or must one be left out? Is two strikers in the starting XI possible? Or will there be five midfielders instead? Can Morata and Aduriz (or Costa) do what Fernando Torres and Villa did? And is there a doubt at right back? Juanfran, excellent all season, was overrun last night.
Most of the squad is decided, most of the team too, but questions remain and some of them are significant.
On Thursday in Italy, Spain drew a game that as Marca put it "does not invite optimism". In fact, there is a certain pessimism tempered by that inescapable sense the match didn't matter much and the summer will be different. That the match was worthless.
But at each end of the pitch, it was a different story. Aduriz and De Gea have waited long enough.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.