Thursday, June 15, 2006

Spain were irresistible

I cannot recall a team beginning on such a note in recent World Cups as Spain did against Ukraine last night. They basically killed Ukraine, even if the final nail was hammered by the Swiss referee when he handed out a red card in addition to a penalty for what was a routine challenge. There was not much evidence to suggest that Ukraine might have fared better without the setback, but all the fight left in them was snuffed. The only time Spain looked anything like threatened was when Andriy Shevchenko almost managed to beat the offside trap on a couple of occasions. I did think the assistant referee may have got it wrong on at least one occasion. The minor quibbles about refereeing aside, Spain just completely dominated the game and reduced a competent Ukraine side to tatters. This was without a doubt the most emphatic performance of the World Cup so far. Which got everyone asking the same old question: are Spain finally ready to put on a show at the biggest stage? They were cruelly eliminated on penalties the last time round, and the refereeing in that quarterfinal against the South Koreans was abysmal as Fernando Morientes was denied a winner. There is no Morientes in this side, and it has a youthful look, particularly the attacking part. Some of the defensive stalwarts have also bowed out of the international scene, and it was a strange feeling to not find Fernando Hierro in the back four. The talismanic figure of Raul Gonzalez was on the bench when the game got underway, but the David Villa and Fernando Torres took the opportunity to strut their own impressive talents. Torres was in blazing form and set the tone early on, and the creative engine of Xabi Alonso and Xavi were linking beautifully with Torres, Villa and Garcia. It was a surprise to see the first three goals come from dead ball situations but the issue was finally settled by Torres' magnificent strike following some delightful passing. Spain have promised a lot before and not delivered. Perhaps most famously in 1998, when they fell in the first around when they were in the group of death. I also remember their loss to Belgium in '86 after they trashed an impressive Danish side, with 'El Buitre' Butragueno scoring four. This time, the draw has been extremely kind to them and they should reach the second round with plenty of gas left in the tank. Along with the Czech, Italians and Argentineans, they are a team to watch (Brazil tops that list by default). - NK

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