As expected, Spain took maximum points from their two final World Cup qualifiers to cement their place at the finals in Brazil next summer. That they did it in less than scintillating fashion will have been a disappointment to some, but how realistic is it to expect La Roja to tear teams apart when a measured, patient approach is just as effective?
The result was never going to be in doubt against Belarus and Georgia, teams of limited capability, neither of whom were ever going to be doing anything beyond making up the numbers in Group I. However, critics have attacked the manner of Spain’s qualification, accusing them of making hard work of opponents with a poverty of ambition and ability.
Like Finland before them, Belarus and Georgia both recognised that their only hope against Vicente del Bosque’s superstars was either to prevent them from playing or to pack their defence to the extent that, even when maintaining the majority of possession, Spain were denied a route to goal. In these circumstances, the matches quickly became wars of attrition, with technically poor teams holding a persevering La Roja at bay.
Georgia Coach Temuri Ketsbaia clearly had precisely such a plan in Albacete last night, with their entire XI behind the ball early on, but Spain’s metronomic midfield kept probing away patiently and steadily, creating chances that were not converted, but apparently never doubting that they would eventually find an opening.
Del Bosque’s squad, liberally sprinkled with fringe players and debutantes, almost seemed set up specifically to deal with the opposition before them. Hampered by injury in some areas, the Coach nevertheless had no hesitation in making changes between and during the two games, giving all his men a chance to shine. One who took his chance was Alvaro Negredo, scoring the winner against Belarus and the first-half opener against Georgia.
Spain’s lack of a genuine target man has been a constant source of conjecture throughout the qualification campaign. The false 9 tactic has always felt like a stop-gap until a true centre-forward was unearthed. Michu’s unconvincing debut in the role against Belarus lasted just 45 minutes, but his replacement, Negredo looked far more the part. He has the look of a journeyman, he is not an automatic choice for his club, but he scored a hatful of goals for his previous one.
Another man not featuring on a regular basis for his club is Juan Mata, but the Chelsea man looks set to provide Del Bosque with an attacking midfield option as the Coach assembles his squad for Brazil. Volleying home from a Xavi Hernandez corner with only his second touch of the match against Georgia, Mata is staking a claim, as is Isco Alarcon, used only fleetingly this time.
Del Bosque is perhaps the only Coach in world football today with the credentials and track record to justify a process of evolution and experimentation during a World Cup qualifying campaign. This remains a transitional Spain, blending experience and innovation and, while there are many uncertainties to be resolved between now and next summer, the result of the process will be eagerly awaited.