With the first round of games in the 2018 World Cup drawing to a close, we have seen each of the favourites for the trophy play their opening matches. Argentina and Brazil were both held to 1-1 stalemates with teams they were widely expected to beat; Germany suffered a surprising 1-0 loss to Mexico; and France struggled to find their rhythm in a 2-1 win over Australia.
It is difficult to argue that any of those teams deserved any more than they got from those games. There was a distinct lack of attacking fluidity from any of them, and each struggled to create many clear-cut goal scoring opportunities.
The game that has bucked this trend was Spain’s six-goal thriller with Portugal that ended 3-3. The sheer amount of talent, especially in the final third, that La Roja displayed made this a match for the ages and has reaffirmed the faith in Spain’s chances of going all the way in this competition.
A misleading scoreline
Were it not for an absolute Cristiano Ronaldo masterclass, the result of this match could have been very different. The fact that Spain conceded three goals isn’t particularly concerning given the nature of them. The first was a 4th-minute penalty which was won by Ronaldo – one of the canniest operators in football when it comes to using his trailing leg to win a foul.
The second came from an absolute howler from David De Gea, where he fumbled the ball into the net trying to save a relatively tame shot. Given he’s built up his reputation over the last few years to become regarded as one of the best keepers in world football then it’s likely to be a freak occurrence. As well as this, he has routinely showed his mental resilience following mistakes, especially during his early days at Old Trafford, which will serve him well as he tries to prepare for their next game.
Later, the equaliser came in the form of a sensational Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick right at the death which you just have to put down to a piece of individual brilliance. With this being the first game in the tournament, it’s to be expected that there may be some rash challenges due to players adapting to playing competitive matches for the first time following the end of the domestic season.
From a Spanish point of view, you’d hope that in the next few games they can eliminate these mistakes which took away from what was otherwise an excellent defensive performance.
Brilliance in midfield and a different option up front
Spain is world renowned for producing some of the finest midfielders to ever grace the game. Players like Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso have all excelled in the national team and were integral when they established world dominance between 2008 and 2012.
After a difficult transitional period in the 2014 World Cup, they appear to have found a player worthy of becoming the main man in the centre of the park: Isco. He was the best Spanish player on the pitch and had a hand in nearly all of their attacks. His performance was almost capped off with a fantastic goal, only for it to be cruelly denied after the ball rattled the crossbar and bounced off the line.
Isco provided the dynamism in a midfield that critically lacks pace and is certain to be key when it comes to breaking down teams as they progress in the competition. One of Spain’s most dangerous weapons in this tournament is their fiery striker, Diego Costa. At first glance he seems ill-fitted to their usual style of play but therein lies the benefit of having him in the squad, he provides a different outlet for the team when their possession-based style isn’t yielding the desired result.
Isco’s best traits were exemplified for his first goal where he took down a long ball from Sergio Busquets, held off two defenders and made himself a yard of space to rifle a shot into the bottom corner. If they can both continue to deliver the electrifying performances throughout the competition, then it’ll stand Spain in good stead going forward.
No manager? No problem
One of the biggest talking points before this World Cup was Spain sacking their head coach, Julen Lopetegui, on the eve of the opening match. Given that he hadn’t overseen a loss in his 20 games in the dugout, it seemed especially risky to dismiss him and potentially ruin the morale of the squad so close to their first match. However, with their interim coach, Fernando Hierro, they have passed this test with flying colours and don’t appear to have been rattled by the late managerial change.
Hierro stated in one of his press conferences that he is intending to ensure the players have continuity by sticking with the style that Lopetegui had instilled during his tenure. As well as this, in the squad they have four out of their ten most capped players which gives vital tournament experience and elite-level knowledge of the international game which are sure to help the team weather this storm. When a shock like this comes to a team there are two options: capitulate under the pressure or use it to galvanise them to create an us-against-them mentality that can drive them towards success – the early signs are certainly pointing towards the latter.
Up next for Spain is a clash with Iran where they’ll be hoping to get their first victory in this year’s competition and doing so with the free-flowing attack and resolute defence that has made Spain so revered in the past decade. There is still a long way to go in the competition and they have already had an entire tournaments worth of drama, but from this point on they’ll be hoping they can refocus and show the spirit of the all-conquering team in 2010 to make a serious impact on the world stage once again.