The worst performance by a defending world cup champion was France in 2002. Having just won the World Cup on home turf four years prior, Les Bleus not only failed to win a match in the group stage at Korea and Japan, they did not even manage a single goal. After their draw last night, Spain may even go one better, or worse, than the French – they may not qualify at all.
After only managing a draw at home to Finland, Spain’s path to Brazil is now somewhat complicated. They are two points behind France who they play next Tuesday. Nothing short of a win will suffice and if they do come up short, it is likely they will be headed for a tricky two-legged play-off with another second-placed side from the continent.
There are nine groups in the UEFA qualification zone, but, only the best eight will be eligible for the play-offs. Assuming Spain, in the worst case scenario, do finish behind the French and make the play-offs, as it stands they would play either Hungary, Sweden, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Iceland or England. None of these potential ties would be foregone conclusions, especially given the nature of two-legged ties which can produce the most unexpected winners – think Australia against Uruguay in the qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, Chelsea against Barcelona in the 2011-12 Champions League and think France against Bulgaria in 1993.
The front page of Catalonia’s sports’ daily, El Mundo Deportivo, read on Saturday morning, ‘Red Alert’ and called the game against France a matter between life and death. However, perhaps they were getting a little too carried. Perhaps it is still too early to sound the alarm bells however much more difficult La Roja have made their bid to retain their title.
After all, Spain were clearly the better side on Friday night. They typically dominated possession, had more shots on goal and had the chances to come away with all the spoils. On any other night, with a little more luck, they would have.
But, it is never easy to play against a side that put all ten men behind the ball and sit deep and virtually allow the opposition the ball for the full ninety minutes. Penetrating an organised wall of ten men is always difficult, no matter their individual quality. And so this was proved again.
In the past and in recent weeks we have seen Barcelona, whose style of play is not so coincidentally similar to that of Spain, suffer when playing ultra-defensive teams. During the Catalan’s recent dry patch, one of the criticisms aimed at them was that their attacking play had lost its edge, it was slow and predictable. And, this is exactly what Spain were like against Finland – slow and predictable.
“We expected to win, we thought by playing our football eventually the winning goal would come, we thought by playing patient football would be enough. We took our time and were the better team, it was very frustrating,” said a clearly frustrated Vicente Del Bosque after the game. Hopefully he has now realised his team cannot afford to ‘take their time’. They need to inject some speed into their game and try and add a little more unpredictability about it too.
There would be a hint of irony if Deschamps’ side were to put Spain to the sword next week and defeat them. Such a result would almost certainly send Spain to the play-offs and there anything could happen. Were the worst to occur, France would have played a vital role in erasing their unenviable record of being the worst defending champions in the history of the world cup.
But, as Del Bosque went on to say, “There are still four games to play so it is not over, we have to be optimistic”. As he suggests, there is time enough for Spain to turn things around and they certainly have the talent to do so. Perhaps a little tactical tinkering is all that is required to get them back to their best.
As they look forward to France, Spain will be able to take heart from their fine record away to the French where they have won on five occasions and lost on six. Now more than ever is it the time to even this record out.