In 2006, Roberto Soldado left Real Madrid, embarking on the well-trodden path that leads from the reserve side, Castilla, away from the Bernabeu without passing by the first team dressing room. Youth team products do not deliver the illusion the club wants in its first team squad.
Replacing Soldado upfront for Castilla was Alvaro Negredo who, it was widely agreed, simply wasn't a Soldado. He was still slightly clumsy with his feet and missed easy goals, yet nonetheless showed flashes of quality and earned the respect of those at the club with his hard work. With application and ambition, Negredo went on to become one of Spain’s top strikers, but needless to say it required a move away form Real Madrid to prove that.
Some six years later the two were at the centre of a team selection debate ahead of the European Championships. Who deserved to make the final cut for the Spain squad? Vicente del Bosque opted for Negredo along with the Fernandos – Torres and Llorente – despite Soldado’s form with Valencia.
The decision paid off, in the sense that Spain retained their title. There can be no complaints. Yet on the other hand the entire debate was something of a mute point. Del Bosque’s ‘No 9s’ played a total of 244 minutes between them over the six matches, mustering just three starts between the three of them.
So as World Cup qualification began for the reigning World and European champions against Georgia, the man who missed out on the squad just months ago was now spearheading the attack. And Soldado proved to be Spain’s ‘saviour’. He avoided what would have been a ‘trauma’. It was he who broke through the ‘wall’, as the Spanish Press put it. Clearly they do not view qualification as a foregone conclusion.
Georgia defended as they could only do – in numbers. The defensive line rarely resembled the purported back four, and was a wall of five, if not six players. They regularly put nine outfield men behind the ball.
Yet despite a record-breaking 80 per cent of possession, improving on the previous record under Del Bosque of 79 per cent, Spain were restricted to testing the impressive Giorgi Loria in goal from range. David Silva hit the post. Xabi Alonso forced a brilliant save. Soldado was nowhere to be seen. ‘The problem is they have to find space where space doesn’t exist’, complained Santiago Canizares during the game as La Roja struggled to create chances.
And yet Del Bosque resisted any temptation to remove his chosen centre forward, changing the system but sticking with the name up front. With David Villa returning to top class competition and Torres also sat on the bench, the option to go with a more experienced and dynamic striker was available. Del Bosque’s patience paid off, though, with the 86th minute winner from the Valencia striker.
There is, of course, the question of whether Spain should have to endure the whole rigmarole of qualification in the first place. Should the champions really have to prove they deserve a chance to defend their title?
A quick look at Brazil’s situation suggests that the hard fought away ties may serve the Roja in good stead. Pulverising China 8-0, as Brazil did this week, reveals nothing about a team’s DNA, and tests nothing. And if Spain, like Brazil, had no competitive action until the World Cup between the Olympics, the situation would be worse for the Spanish. Mano Menezes may be under pressure after losing the final to Mexico in London 2012, but Spain did not even score a goal in their three group matches.
Perhaps Menezes will be relieved to avoid the pressure of qualifying from what is becoming a fiercely competitive South American group, but the tension and demand of qualification will undoubtedly serve the World champions in good stead for Brazil 2014.
The qualifiers will push Spain even further. In their group, they will face the kind of challenges from a team with the quality of France, to the tenacity shown by teams like Georgia on Tuesday. Vicente Del Bosque will be forced to develop his side and find methods to break down increasingly defensive teams. It will require patience – the kind shown by his latest match winner.