Quarter-finals: France – Colombia – Belgium – Costa Rica
World Cup progress: Group stage
Team rating: 4
Top scorer: Alonso, Villa, Torres, Mata (1)
The World Cup proved to be a major anti-climax for holders Spain, who crashed out at the group stage after two defeats, writes Mike Barnes.
End of a Spanish era
Spain’s six-year domination of world football came to an ignominious end in Brazil after defeats against the Netherlands and Chile condemned La Roja to an early exit few had expected.
The World and European champions have cast all opponents aside in an era that has seen them win the 2008 and 2012 European Championship and the 2010 World Cup in between, becoming the first nation ever to secure such an unlikely treble.
Spain went into their opening game against the Netherlands amidst speculation that they could extend that winning run to four major titles but, after taking the lead against the Dutch through a Xabi Alonso penalty after Diego Costa had been fouled, Spain were torn to shreds by Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie as the Netherlands recorded an emphatic 5-1 win, ample revenge for their World Cup Final loss at the hands of Del Bosque’s men four years prior.
Central defenders Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique were cruelly exposed by the rampant Dutch attack, but the attacking instincts of full-backs Jordi Alba and Cesar Azpilicueta were also blunted by Louis van Gaal’s counter-attacking tactics. Even Iker Casillas, for years so dominant between the posts, gave a nightmare display.
Van Persie headed Daley Blind’s long ball over Casillas for the equaliser and Robben rifled a shot past Casillas to make it two. Wesley Sneijder’s free-kick was headed in by De Vrij for number three and Casillas hesitated too long as van Persie pounced for the fourth. When Robben raced past Ramos and dribbled around Casillas for the fifth, the nightmare was complete.
The Spanish attack, always a point of contention, remained a cause for concern. Costa, Brazilian born, got the nod ahead of the ageing David Villa and the unreliable Fernando Torres after many were left asking why free-scoring Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Llorente had been omitted from Del Bosque’s final 23 to travel to South America.
Costa won the penalty that led to Spain’s goal against the Dutch, but contributed little else and cut a solitary figure. He clearly lacked full fitness and was unable to gel with his teammates and a style that is far from the one he is familiar with at Atletico Madrid.
It got worse for La Roja, irreversibly so, as first-half goals from Eduardo Vargas and Charles Aranguiz sealed a 2-0 victory for Chile at the Maracana to give the South Americans their first-ever win over Spain and send Del Bosque’s men out of the competition with a game still to play.
Del Bosque had attempted to tailor his side’s successful tiki-taka style to suit both the conditions and to try to accommodate Costa in attack, but his overall team selection remained conservative. Xavi Hernandez looked a spent force against the Dutch and did not feature again, but Del Bosque might have made more of the reserves within his squad.
Only in the final game against Australia in Curitiba, an unlikely battle to avoid picking up the group’s wooden spoon, did the 63-year-old ring the changes, looking to the future and the next iteration of La Roja under whoever his successor might be. Spain won comfortably against the antipodeans, registering a 3-0 win to finish third in the group.
Pepe Reina, Juanfran, Raul Albiol and David Villa were all called up for an essentially meaningless encounter. Andres Iniesta, the best Spanish player in a forgettable World Cup, was making his 100th appearance for La Roja. Dedicated and focused as ever, and looking to pull the strings in midfield, he was not helped by the erratic runs of Torres.
Juanfran set up Villa for a delightful backheeled finish for Spain’s first, Iniesta’s pinpoint through ball found Torres for the second and Cesc Fabregas’ cross found Juan Mata, who nutmegged the ‘keeper for the third.
The reasons for Spain’s rapid, dramatic and ultimately sad fall from grace can be argued long and hard. Opponents have found them out and learned how to stop them playing. Their forward line has been blunt and ineffective, with Diego Costa – not a single shot on target – a singular failure as the spearhead of the Spanish attack. Most observers agree, however, that it is simply time for another nation to inherit their crown and for La Roja to rebuild, renew and go again.
The Coach – Vicente del Bosque
Del Bosque retained his dignity in defeat and, although the Spanish Football Federation have refused to entertain talk of his resignation, this was almost certainly the great man’s last World Cup in charge. He spoke of a dignified final exit, but his selection was over cautious and he was unable to lift his side after their disastrous start
Player of the Tournament – Andres Iniesta
With all around him in disarray, Iniesta’s poise was as good as ever. He showed classy touches and was always trying to change the game, drawing on all his skill and experience to create a spark. Sadly his teammates, fellow ringmaster Xavi included, were not up to the task
Cesc Fabregas’ searching pass to find Juan Mata. The Manchester United playmaker nutmegged Australian goalkeeper Matthew Ryan to seal a consolation 3-0 win.
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For a complete review of the 2014 World Cup, check out the next issue of Soccer Italia, written by the team at Football Italia and available on worldwide subscription.