World Cup 2014: Spain on the brink ahead of Chile match as positivity masks the possible end of an era

Humiliating 5-1 defeat to the Netherlands may be too much to come back from

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Spain were spinning as positive a message as possible in the Maracana on Tuesday, but couldn’t negate the nature of that devastating 5-1 defeat to the Netherlands. “A result like that leaves you with no argument,” Andres Iniesta flatly acknowledged.

Well, not quite. It does give rise to one rather big argument. Is this the end for this team? Will that atrocious opening to this World Cup lead to the elimination of the defending champions in their second group game against Chile on Wednesday, and thereby the end of an era?

Because, in some ways, the most striking aspect of the opening loss was not even the stunning result. It was the remarkable pattern of play that led to it, and the uncomfortable reality that it could really have been so much worse. Two images remain beyond the brutality of the figures on that Salvador scoreboard.

The first is Arjen Robben simply searing past the Spanish back line, and their defenders proving unable to do anything to keep him out, or even keep up. The second is the complete breakdown those runs caused in Vicente del Bosque’s side.

The way in which the Netherlands came from 1-0 down to quickly lead 2-1 was the first time that Spain had gone ahead in a competitive game and still lost since 6 September 2006, in a 3-2 defeat away to Northern Ireland.

Since then, the quality and control of their passing game has been the closest thing to a cast-iron guarantee the international game has seen. Once they went in front, you could be virtually certain they would not give the ball away, or the lead.

Last Friday in Salvador, however, it was as if that unprecedented and unexpected turn-around delivered much more than a Dutch lead. It was a body blow which shook Spain to the core and may well have a deeper psychological effect.

How does a team previously so dominant even begin to recover from a dismal thrashing like that? Everything they previously knew was forgotten. The doubt that spread through the team was all too visible.

That is the biggest issue. They are going to have to recover from that before they even start to fix the other stack-load of actual football problems in the team.

For Spain’s part, they said all the right things. The surprising optimism of Iniesta and Del Bosque was evident the moment they came out for their pre-match press conference.

Iniesta was asked how he was feeling after such a fierce beating. “I feel like we are prepared to win,” the Barcelona playmaker responded. “It’s hard to return to normality, like it was before the first game but I also feel what happened has to be in the past.

“It’s clear it was a very hard blow, a very bad result above all but, in difficult situations, you just have to give your best to fix the situation.”


The key question is whether their best is still good enough. Spain’s possession game was always hugely dependent on the drive and intensity that went along with it, but it’s somewhat inevitable that will wane after six years of unprecedented success. Once the rot sets in, it also becomes very difficult to do anything about, no matter the age or status of the players. Something intangible evaporates.

In that, there is potential that the nature of the defeat to the Dutch could actually be a positive. It could rock them enough to produce a real response. Del Bosque hinted at a previous absence of any kind of productive tension. “I think it’s good to have a bit of anxiety, but always a bit controlled,” he said.

Iniesta similarly pointed to the urgency of the situation in their remaining group games. “We have two finals,” he said. “We have been in these situations before in the last World Cup.”

To do that, however, they may be forced to drop some of the stars of that World Cup. Goalkeeper Iker Casillas made far too many errors, Xavi had too small an impact, Gerard Pique particularly struggled with Robben’s pace.

Chile's national football team midfielder Arturo Vidal (L) controls the ball as his teammate forward Alexis Sanchez (R) watches on during a training session


The problem today is that Chile are capable of going at Spain in a similar way, and have an attacker with similar speed in Alexis Sanchez. The suggestions from the camp are that Javi Martinez will come in to anchor defence, and Xavi may be dropped, possibly for Atletico Madrid’s Koke.

Del Bosque would not be drawn on his line-up, but did admit that they may have to at last compromise – if not change – their style in order to conquer Chile. “They are valiant, aggressive and take risks,” he said. “We have our own identity and can’t lose it. We have to mix it with another style of play, without affecting us, but still being able to damage them.”

Fernando Torres put that in even starker terms. “We win our way... but, if we can’t win like that, we just have to win.” Right now, that is the only argument that matters.