As Sunday’s game at Fortaleza drew to a close the Brazilian fans chanted: “Spain your time to lose will come.” But, such a time does not seem at all apparent. Even when not at their best, Spain get the job done and without too much fuss. And, for the best part that was how it was against Nigeria.
The early signs to Group B’s final match all pointed to another Spanish stampede. A scintillating start to the game saw them rewarded with an early goal after just three minutes. The Nigerians would have feared the worst at this stage but, to their credit, they fought back into the game. Admittedly, Spain aided their cause as they unusually took their foot of the gas.
Following their bright start, Vicente del Bosque’s side looked uncharacteristically laboured, particularly in the opening 45 minutes. They did not utterly dominate possession as they usually do while they conceded a host of chances. By half-time they had allowed the African champions twice as many shots than Uruguay had mustered in 90 minutes against them a week before.
Nevertheless, despite being below par, Spain were still largely unfettered. Yes Nigeria did take the game to them and yes they did have their chances. But, so too did Spain. In the final analysis, the world champions were still the better side. They still had more possession, more chances and, most importantly, scored three goals. And on the balance of play in the second half, they could have had even more.
And this is why Spain are so great. They can afford a rare day off every now and then and the result is the same. Anyone who dares to write them off after such a display does so at their own peril. One is reminded of their win over Portugal in the semi-finals of Euro 2012. They were far from their best, but, just days later destroyed Italy in the final – a bad omen for the Italians who await them on Thursday without star forward Mario Balotelli.
For the semi-final clash with Italy, Del Bosque will probably reconsider his options in attack. Despite scoring against Uruguay, Roberto Soldado fluffed his lines on two gilt-edged chances and overall did not look entirely convincing. To make things worse for the Valencia captain his replacement in the second half, Fernando Torres, scored with just his second touch of the game with a powerful diving header. It was the Chelsea man’s fifth goal of the competition and he now is just one shy of equalling the all-time tournament record of nine goals.
Still, the night did not belong to Torres. Instead, it belonged to Jordi Alba. The Barcelona left-back scored Spain’s opener while he finished off the game with a second late on. Both goals he took with the calmness rarely seen in a defender and, sometimes, not even seen in a striker – Soldado’s finishing a case in point.
Speaking after the match, Alba insisted the game with Italy on Thursday will not be a repeat of the Euro 2012 final. If Spain play like they did against Nigeria, it won’t. But, it probably will not matter. Spain have now gone 28 competitive matches unbeaten – a new record. They are, as Marca’s headline ran on Monday, ‘a winning machine’. Whether they are at the top of their game or not, they will remain odds-on to prevail, as always. And, they probably will.