Spain desperate for Torres to fire in battle against oldest rivals
Spain v Portugal: Today, Cape Town, 7.30pm, BBC 1
It is two years to the day since Fernando Torres seized on a hesitation by Philip Lahm, lifted the ball over Jens Lehmann's sprawling frame and won Spain the European Championship. It is two years since the word "underachieving" was removed from the phrase "Spanish national team". Two years since they carried Spanish flags into the streets of Liverpool and two years since they became everyone's favourite second team.
As they prepared for their encounter with Portugal, a fixture that carries the same level of intensity as an England-Germany match, Torres cut a diminished figure. As he did in the early rounds of Euro 2008, David Villa has carried the sharpest edge to his boots. His partner still seems troubled by the knee injury that cost him the last quarter of Liverpool's season of despair. His manager, Vicente del Bosque, may point out that Torres's mere presence has diverted defenders' attentions and created space for Villa. However, after training at Green Point Stadium last night, Villa remarked that goals were a centre-forward's only currency, in which case Torres has not a penny to his name. But he added that he expected Torres to start cashing in late just as he did in Austria and Switzerland.
It says something for decades of Spanish underachievement at World Cups that Portugal have reached two semi-finals, a stage where their neighbours have never ventured. In Portugal's last semi-final, in Munich four years ago, Cristiano Ronaldo looked the one man capable of driving Phil Scolari's team to the final, although as has happened so often to a side who play in often beautiful patterns but lack teeth when it matters, Portugal failed to score.
The 7-0 rout of North Korea apart, this year's vintage has not conceded or scored against anyone and it says plenty that Ronaldo has been voted man of the match in all three group games. Which is why both Joan Capdevila, the man who will have to mark him at Green Point tonight, and Del Bosque were asked how Ronaldo could be stopped, with the inference being that if they stifled the boy from Madeira they would choke the entire Portuguese team. Capdevila replied that he hoped he would have a lot of support.
The contrast between the opposing managers is significant. Del Bosque is an old-style football man. When Real Madrid embraced the age of the galactico, Del Bosque was considered insufficiently glamorous and, despite the fact he had taken them to the European Cup the season before and the team had just celebrated winning La Liga, he was sacked – to be replaced by Carlos Queiroz, the man he faces tonight.
Whereas Queiroz dotted his press conference with references to the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, who named this piece of land the Cape of Good Hope, Del Bosque was more down to earth. He was asked if Spain's opening defeat to Switzerland had somehow galvanised his team and made them realise what they had to lose. "It is never a good idea to lose a game of football," he said. "Ever."
*Real Madrid last night made the first signing of the Jose Mourinho era at the club by buying the Argentina winger Angel di Maria for £21m from Benfica. Meanwhile, Barcelona have confirmed that both Thierry Henry and Yaya Touré will leave this summer. Henry is expected to go to the MLS in America, while Touré has been strongly linked with Manchester City.
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