– as large as 14/1 with some bookmakers – pulled off the remarkable feat of beating European Champions Spain. It was not so shocking because the Swiss are so weak – they have, after all, been in and around most tournaments in the past few years, and they also possess some decent players – but the real sense of bewilderment at this result came because, quite simply, this was not supposed to happen.
Spain were supposed to breeze into this World Cup showing the same form that they demonstrated in Austria and Switzerland two years ago. The team is still made up of mostly the same players after all, and so they were supposed to lay down a marker of intent the same way as, say, Germany did against Australia in their opening group match, by demonstrating silky attacking football and blowing away their opposition. Yet it never happened. Admittedly Fernando Torres was restricted to a watching brief for just over an hour of the contest, but Spain still had enough attacking talent on the pitch at the Moses Mabhida Stadium to have won several matches, yet they did not even win this one. Or draw. Gelson Fernandes’ scrappy winner has – in many ways – brought this World Cup alive, but not for Spanish boss Vicente Del Bosque, who was as forthright as ever. “They played a defensive game and tried to take advantage of any counter-attack and dead-ball situation,” said the veteran boss. “I feel it [the win] is an excessive prize for them considering the football they displayed. We came for the win and this time it has escaped us. It’s not a good sign we send to our rivals. But we have to hit back and try to win our next two group games. We have arrived up to here playing a certain way and we will not lose our identity. In football you can always lose but I feel a sense of avenging this defeat.”
Defiant words then, but Spain should not lose sight of just why they lost this match. It would be easy to point to Xabi Alonso’s piercing, spearing drive that smashed back off the crossbar, to the challenge on David Silva that could have produced a penalty in the first half, or indeed to the manner of Switzerland’s winner, and the mess that Gerard Pique and Iker Casillas found themselves in, and blame all of those incidences on bad luck, but the truth is that the Spanish simply failed to break down the resolute Switzerland defence often enough. They had 71% of possession in the first half, but did not use it sufficiently.
It cannot have been a shock to Del Bosque that the Swiss played the way they did, as they had every right to do just that. As many observers watching the game concluded, it would almost be fatal to try and take on the Spanish at their own game, and no amount of carping from Del Bosque will change that. Honduras will probably approach Spain’s next match in the same manner – the attack-minded Chileans appear to be a law unto themselves (and what a breath of fresh air that is in this tournament) – and so the Spanish have to work out just how to get the better of teams set up with a cautious approach designed at frustrating them.
Step one has to be the return to fitness of Torres. Regular El Nino watchers would not have been surprised at the rustiness that the Liverpool forward displayed during his half hour run out in Durban – one shot in particular would have threatened to reach the boundary at the nearby Kingsmead Test cricket ground – as he often needs a game or two to get back into perfect nick following an injury absence, but Spain cannot afford that now. Torres will be the first name on the teamsheet against Honduras, not just because the Spanish need his goals but more down to the fact that they cannot afford to play with their 4-5-1 formation again. The midfield was too cramped against the Swiss, with both Jesus Navas and Pedro brought on too late to make a difference. Torres and one of those two wide men should start in Spain’s next match, as Del Bosque bids to turn around his side’s fortunes in the group, but without compromising their ideals in the process. Spanish supporters probably would not mind if he did that now, however, as their World Cup dreams hang in the balance.