James Lawton: Del Bosque has steep climb to scale heights of Latin America
Saturday 26 June 2010
It was time for a European response to the idea that South America are taking hold of this World Cup – and if Spain couldn't make a convincing one, who could?
They did respond with much commitment but the conviction was, to say the least, sporadic.
No doubt their second goal, scored by the returning Andres Iniesta, was guaranteed to strike a chill into any team stepping into the path of the European champions, but it was somewhat isolated in its brilliant penetration. This remained true even when Chile were reduced, for a distinctly dubious reason, to 10 men.
The onset of authority was simply not progressing according to the script.
Spain have been outlining the plot over the last two years but so far the moments of truth have been somewhat clouded. With Iniesta on the field, there is always the possibility of a cobra-like strike and his bite and influence were no doubt the chief source of assurance for the Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque. However, he had no sooner celebrated the goal that seemed to confirm his team's passage to the round of 16 against Portugal when he was beset again by his most gnawing problem.
Fernando Torres was again required to walk off the field dejectedly at a crucial point in his team's less-than-serene passage to the killing phase of the tournament. The striker made some good-hearted runs but his impersonation of the man who cowed so many defenders last season was never more than of marginal menace. With Xabi Alonso also feeling a knock sufficiently to return to the bench, Spain were thus drawn into the trenches by a Chile team who refused to acknowledge either the skills of Spain or the handicap imposed by Mexican referee Marco Rodriguez when he handed a second yellow card to Marco Estrada.
The Chilean was collecting his third card of the tournament, but when Torres fell to the ground he seemed to be the victim of an accidental collision.
Chile, like all their fellow South Americans, have shown impressive competitive instincts and once again they proved that if they tend to be rash in the tackle they have an apparently endless appetite for serious action.
This they achieved despite going down 2-0 moments before Estrada was dismissed, Rodrigo Millar reducing the deficit early in the second half with the help of a massive deflection off Gerard Piqué.
They couldn't take Spain full on, not with their reduced manpower and the threat of some waspish strike from Iniesta again, or maybe David Villa – who had opened the scoring with fine, almost droll skill from 45 yards when Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo made a mad dash from his goal-line and won a challenge with Torres, only to send the ball to the feet of Spain's outstanding predator so far.
But what Chile could do, as they prayed for Switzerland and Honduras to remain deadlocked in the other group game, was fight Spain to a standstill. This they did to the point of a stand-off as Spain played their serial passing game without, apparently, any ambition to strike for a decisive third goal. It would have been the gesture of a team in powerful command of its ambitions, but no such bravado was forthcoming.
Spain, like Brazil earlier in the day, seemed content to guarantee their progress in the most functional way.
For Chile there was the desperate hope that Switzerland did not break down Honduras. Had the Swiss done so it would have been cruel injustice for a team who came into the tournament with the belief that if they failed it would be through no lack of nerve or boldness.
Their achievement would, though, have stood with some honour whatever the outcome of the match beyond their influence.
They had taken on the pride of Europe, and still some people's idea of the favourites, and they hassled and they ran them to a point of serious frustration.
Spain had one priority, of course, and it was achieved. They recovered from the shock of their opening defeat to Switzerland and preserved the possibility that they will some time soon find again their easiest, most daunting touch.
Certainly, it needs to be exerted against the Portugal of Cristiano Ronaldo.
For Chile, their fight to show they can exist with spirit against their betters goes on. Switzerland's failure to save themselves allows Chile to move into the shadow of Brazil. Meanwhile, Spain will be reflecting on how a team from the margins of the South American elite pushed them so hard.
Iniesta, especially, has some quick and influential work to do. He was the sharpest example of Spain when they are at their most creative. He cannot be expected to carry such a load all the way to the mountain top.
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