Wednesday, July 07, 2010

"I'm the Durban spaceman, baby..."

ANDRES Iniesta had predicted this would be a ‘beautiful battle’, but perhaps the interpreter should have translated that as ‘attractive attrition’.
Seldom can wearing an opponent relentlessly down be as compelling as Spain make it, despite what a tentatively-restless backlash from some quarters might be suggesting.
Another 1-0 win, with the goal coming late, tonight put Spain into their first World Cup final – ensuring a new name would be on the trophy at the end of their game against the Netherlands on Sunday.
Yet unlike previous underwhelming performances this summer, this win over Germany – the second half especially – suggested tiki-taka is finally ticking over just right.
The goal that put Spain in their first World Cup final might have been rather basic, when it came.
Carles Puyol’s header was about as emphatic as can be, walloping the ball into the net and almost sending opponents – and team-mates – splaying all the way with it.
A few late crosses aside, Germany had little answer – either to the goal or Spain’s overall control.
Vicente del Bosque’s side looked classy and composed all over, with Sergio Busquets getting everywhere – but always usefully, this time – and Xavi gradually re-locating his range.
Germany’s counter-attacking was contained, with Lahm and Boateng kept pinned back and Ozil either kept isolated between Klose and the four-man midfield or else pickpocketed by the busy Busquets.
At times this summer Spain’s lovely passing has lacked a little joy – as if, while retaining the first ‘slow-slow’ part, they’d mislaid somehow the following ‘quick-quick’ bit.
That looked again the case during the first half, though the passing was mostly shorter and a little less sloppy in earlier matches.
Pedro’s inclusion for the infirm and out-of-form Fernando Torres suggested a little more width in the Spanish attack, and he did keep dizzyingly switching positions with both Andres Iniesta and David Villa up-front.
Yet the Spanish midfield and attack were willing to pack tight for much of the time too, especially whenever Germany tried to break out from their own defence.
The German full-backs had little space to manoeuvre, Piotr Trochowski contributed little – certainly none of the prolific peskiness of Thomas Mueller – and Bastian Schweinsteiger’s compound role tonight involved plenty more tackling than attacking.
Villa could be seen losing his rag as Xavi, Iniesta or Pedro would fail by inches to quite find the right through-pass, but the second half brought a little more pace and precision.
And two thrilling minutes on the hour mark could have brought Spain three goals, the high-point being Xabi Alonso’s backheel, Iniesta’s nimble dribble and the agonising whistle of ball just beyond Villa’s studs.
Here was football no longer simply easy on the eye, and fodder for the brain – but also enough to send the heart surging into the mouth.
Which now waters at the thought of a truly colourful Sunday ahead.
Following, of course, Saturday’s contractual obligation, that at least gives retro-philes a Seventies World Cup rematch after all - just not a repeat of the ’74 final, but the third-place play-off from four years earlier.
By contrast, the Spanish and Dutch have never clashed at a World Cup before – perhaps apt, when hearing the King of Spain tributes in the Netherlands’ national anthem.
Spain’s, of course, is lyric-less – despite witless wordsmiths’ valiant efforts in recent years.
But if their players can improve even on tonight’s slick display, then Wesley Sneijder will have to be at his decisive best – or Mark Van Bommel his destructive worst – if the Dutch aren’t to be the ones struck dumb.

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