For example, there are plenty of people out there who will claim that the European champions’ best performance of their three matches came in a game that they actually lost, and also that the closing stages of Spain’s final group encounter with Chile did not really resemble a football match at all, and that the Spanish secured their qualification from Group H despite the presence of a dark-haired, surly imposter wearing Fernando Torres’ No 9 shirt. All of which is true of course, but if it really is better not to peak early in tournaments – as many people seem to be claiming – then surely these are good signs for the Spanish. They are now just four games away from World Cup glory, and they have barely even hit second gear.
There were brief flashes of quality against Chile. David Villa’s second brilliantly-taken goal of the tournament – and third overall as he chases another competition golden boot – was as stunning as it was essential. The all-out attacking South Americans had troubled the Spanish before that, but Villa’s finish – coming after goalkeeper Claudio Bravo had raced out of his goal to challenge Torres – settled nerves, before Andres Iniesta’s superb second all but confirmed progress, with the fact that it occurred in the same moment as a red card for the fiery Chileans serving as a happy double act for Vicente Del Bosque’s men.
“Villa’s goal was important for us,” said Iniesta, adding: “It came at the time when we were not comfortable on the pitch. We still continued to suffer until the end but am glad we are through to the next round – that is what was important.” Important indeed, and if you believe Coach Vicente Del Bosque, then the win has restored the Spanish swagger. “When we played Switzerland we were very disturbed emotionally,” said the boss. “After today’s game we are now very optimistic and hope we will do well in the next round. I must however give praise to Chile’s players and the coach for giving us such a huge challenge going to the next round.”
Chile will be in that next round too though, where they will face Brazil, but Spanish eyes are now firmly on Tuesday’s clash with Iberian cousins Portugal in Cape Town – a local derby thousands of miles away from home. A meeting with Cristiano Ronaldo and his band of brothers certainly whets the appetite, but both teams certainly have their flaws. Portugal demonstrated a lack of a cutting edge against both the Ivory Coast and Brazil, while Spain’s lack of cutting edge was last seen being hauled off after 55 minutes in Pretoria last night. “I had to replace Fernando because he said he was feeling uncomfortable with a muscle injury,” said Del Bosque. “The knock has nothing to do with his knee injury. I brought on Cesc Fabregas because we needed more control in midfield at that time and am glad the move worked for us.”
Maybe it will work for the Spanish in Cape Town too, as Torres has so far given Del Bosque no reason not to drop him for the second round tie. Perhaps bringing in Fabregas, or maybe a wide man like Jesus Navas or Pedro will be of benefit to the team, as it would push the in form Villa right upfront, where he can do the most damage. Obviously, having a Torres in your squad can never be regarded as a hindrance, and perhaps the return to form of the Liverpool man will be the spark that will ignite the Spanish into producing the kind of performance that the entire football world knows that they are capable of. He, his team-mates, and the Spanish nation would love nothing more than for that to come against the Portuguese. After a slow burning start to this World Cup, it is now time for Spain to heat it up with the football that they know they are capable of. If it means getting one up on the neighbours then so much the better.