New preview, new format. This one will be structured in pluses and minuses:
Pluses (ie, factors that should contribute to Spain’s win):
1) Team atmosphere. The best so far in this tournament. After their last two wins, especially against the Portuguese, the squad have recovered some of the swagger they had displayed before the World Cup started. Specifically, we saw Xavi, Iniesta and Villa train in high spirits during the last couple of days. Good sign indeed. The Spanish internationals look ‘enchufados’ (literally, ‘plugged in’) for this match.
2) Fernando Torres. Believe me, he looks like a man on a mission. He’s killing himself to get fit. I still believe it’s early for him to start, but it’s obvious that Del Bosque’s support (‘Our starting striker is Fernando Torres’) and Llorente’s evident hunger to play (‘I am ready to start’) have had the desired effect on the Liverpool icon. Let’s see how he does this evening.
3) The team have shown they know how to compete. Two cruel defeats have changed the way Spain behave: the 2-0 semifinal match of the Confed Cup, and the 1-0 loss to Switzerland. It was different when they played Portugal. Against Queiroz’s side we could see that, even having difficulties to break their deadlock, the Spaniards showed patience, waited for the chance, and brought the best out of Llorente when he came in. Our players now really believe that they have several top-level options to change the match dynamics coming off the bench, and the striker from La Rioja only strengthen that impression. This has probably been the biggest factor to keep my nerves under control during the last two days: I do believe they have learnt how to take care of these matches, using the starting eleven or whoever comes off the bench.
4) Paraguay’s strikers. One of the most bizarre statistics of this Cup tells you that, despite arguably having one of the best group of strikers of their history (Valdez, Barrios, Cardozo, Santa Cruz and Benitez), these five men haven’t managed to score a single goal during this World Cup. None! The first three did put the ball into the net when they defeated New Zealand in the penalty shootout, which sounds like not that much of an offensive contribution after four matches (one of them including extra time). They really have difficulties going forward. Keep it that way, please.
Minuses (ie. Factors that can put Spain’s victory at stake)
1) All the bloody talk about the semifinal. Marca’s cover today read ‘Spain avoid Brazil in the final’ (given that the Brazilians lost to Holland yesterday). Have we not learnt anything from the Confed Cup?? I do believe that Del Bosque has done a good job of focusing the team on the next match, avoiding to talk about their potential rivals after a hypothetical win this evening, but when you have hundreds of journalists asking questions non-stop about Argentina or Germany, it’s harder to maintain most players focused. But as I mentioned in the pluses, and judging by what I saw during the last two days, the players look much more concentrated on Paraguay than they did when they were about to play against the US.
2) Paraguay’s defensive structure. With only one goal conceded, it’s quite difficult to find a weak link among the guarani back four. However, and as it is the case with every good defensive team, all eleven players help out to stop the opposing midfielders and strikers. Midfielders Caceres and Vera are especially consistent in this type of tasks.
I rate Paraguay’s defensive structure even higher than Portugal’s, but that should not modify Spain’s approach: patience, ball possession, a long ball here and there to avoid becoming predictable, and exchanges of positions by the Spanish midfielders and forwards to create distractions in the Paraguayan defence.
3) ‘The other football’. Former national team gaffer Luis Aragones, who has apparently toned down his initially harsh critics to Del Bosque, stated last night that ‘Paraguay know how to play the other football quite well’. The Paraguayans are well known experts in the dark arts of time-wasting, opposition-player and referee intimidation, and all type of unorthodox techniques to prevent the other team from getting their rhythm going. Exactly the type of team against which Spain usually suffer. Our team need not only to be patient with the ball, but also to keep their cool for the whole match. Fights, arguments and vendettas will only help the Paraguayans…
‘Talent should prevail’, someone said. There’s no doubt that this Spanish side have enough of that to get a win this evening, but that difference in skill will only become apparent if Del Bosque and his players forget about competing in categories belonging to ‘the other football’ against the proficient Paraguay, and focus on managing the match and the ball.
I am not even going to tackle Spain’s starting line-up issue. Del Bosque has tinkered with the team for some time now, and seems finally resolved to stick to the starting eleven. At some point we have to trust the coach, even though, if you ask me (ok, I’ll tackle the freaking starting line-up issue), I would start with only one single defensive midfielder; Iniesta, Silva, Xavi as offensive midfielders; and Villa (not on the left, but up front) and Llorente as strikers. Another defensive midfielder and / or Torres could join the team depending on the development of the match. And I am not totally confident in Casillas, but his experience should mean some trust, as it is the case with our gaffer as well.
As you can imagine, I am now at the edge of a nervous breakdown. The first World Cup I remember is 1982. Since then, Spain have been at this juncture in three occasions (1986, 1994 and 2002), and they never got the required victory to get to the semifinal stage. Spain’s best finish in a World Cup was a fourth place in 1950, although FIFA applied a different system for the tournament back there, which meant that there was no such a thing as the quarter-finals.
Therefore, in just over two hours, this Spanish team will have the chance to make history (sorry to resort to the usual hyperbole, but it’s actually a fact): reach the semi-final round of a World Cup. And it’s entirely up to them.