First things first: a victory over the reigning World and European champions is no mean feat. Spain are in continual evolution, as younger, leaner, more talented players replace the old-guard that oversaw the end of their trophy famine in 2008; indeed leading the nation to eight straight victories in qualifying for Poland and Ukraine’s 2012 championships.
Therefore England deserve congratulation for defeating such an iconic team. Fabio Capello’s side defended doughtily from the first whistle. Defending their 18-yard line with zeal, they narrowed the space in which the supremely talented Spanish midfield could work their hypnotic triangles. Time and again, the ball would break loose before a forward could be set free. Time and again an English leg was first to the ball to hack it clear.
Whilst chances were at a premium at the other end of the pitch, when one came Frank Lampard took it nervelessly and ruthlessly. As the pressure on the England goal increased and the rhythm of Spain’s passing became more insistent, the fixture brought to mind the battles between Sam Allardyce’s artisans of Bolton against the refined artistry of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. Invariably, The Gunners would lay slain by the steely blade of Big Sam’s tactical excellence.
Arsenal, of course, finished comfortably the higher of the two sides. Nullifying the craft of a superior side in one-off matches was simply not enough. The superior resources, the exhilarating style of football and the consistency of the better team’s performances, over a sustained period of matches, told. Nothing can be extrapolated from a single match of football. Just ask Ottmar Hitzfeld, whose Switzerland vanquished Spain in their opening match at the 2010 World Cup. Their fate? First round exit. The fate of the Spanish: winners.
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Prior to the 2006 World Cup, two late Michael Owen headers lead England to a barely plausible 3-2 victory over Argentina. Buoyed by the adrenaline rush of the two late goals, the smash-and-grab success was viewed as the coronation of England’s ‘Golden Generation’; stark proof that they were potential champions. The fact that Juan Roman Riquelme’s inspired, rhythmic passing and the unhinged genius of a young Lionel Messi had annihilated the Three Lions for much of the match was forgotten. A miserable tournament later and the euphoria preceding it had led to bitterness and disappointment.
England, quite simply, must not be judged potential European champions. To do so would only serve to add undue pressure on a team historically proven to crumble at the first sign of it. A little detachment, a dosage of rationality, is needed on behalf of the fans and the media. There are still glaring weaknesses in the squad – not least the confidence and assurance the players have in possession, and the appreciation of one another’s movement – which need to be addressed. Allowing Capello to do so in tranquility would be ideal. Whether the reaction to the defeat of Spain will allow such harmonious preparation is another question entirely.
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