30 Jun 2018, 12:31 IST
It is tempting to look back at Spain’s 2010 World Cup triumph and remember only the final – the glorious victory of brain over brawn, of elegance over Dutch brutality.
Andres Iniesta wrote his name in Spanish folklore with the extra-time winner, granting him eternal reverence, and applause at every ground he subsequently visited with Barcelona.
In addition to Iniesta, Vicente del Bosque was able to call on the rugged Carles Puyol in defence, the midfield artistry of Xavi and Xabi Alonso and the predatory instincts of David Villa and Fernando Torres.
A team so good you’d imagine they breezed through the group stage with the minimum of fuss.
Not so. Indeed, their early travails in South Africa bear a striking similarity to Spain’s struggles in advancing to the last 16 in Russia.
Granted, the 2010 team didn’t have their coach depart on the eve of the tournament, as Spain did here, but they did get off to an equally chaotic start with a 1-0 loss to Switzerland.
They got back on track with a 2-0 defeat of Honduras to set up a crunch final Group H clash with Chile. At the start of play, Spain and Switzerland had three points each with Chile on six.
Spain’s qualification was very much in the balance and had it not been for a combination of Chilean madness and Spanish dark arts, Iniesta and Co’s 2010 story would have had a very different ending.
The madness was Claudio Bravo’s. After Chile had dominated the early going with the frenetic energy typical of a Marcelo Bielsa side, Bravo came racing needlessly out of his goal to clear a throughball only to play it straight to Villa, who passed it into the empty net from 35 yards.
The dark arts belonged to Torres. In the build-up to Iniesta making it 2-0, the striker had his ankle clipped by Marco Estrada. Torres went down clutching his face and Estrada received a second yellow.
Chile pulled one back through Rodrigo Millar but Spain held on. It wasn’t pretty, or convincing, but they were through.
“We have overcome a very difficult time,” said Del Bosque, whose team than saw off Portugal, Paraguay and Germany before overcoming the Netherlands to lift the trophy.
— Selección Española de Fútbol (@SeFutbol) June 29, 2018
Fast forward eight years and Fernando Hierro – tasked with guiding Spain through the tournament after Julen Lopetegui was sacked for not keeping his national team employers abreast of a move to Real Madrid – has had plenty of difficulties of his own.
Spain looked uncharacteristically devoid of fluency in their opening three matches, a sequence that started with an Iberian clash against Portugal dominated by Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Real Madrid superstar’s stunning late free-kick settled a pulsating 3-3 draw and denied Spain a win in the face of adversity following the drama of Lopetegui’s departure.
With Iran and Morocco to come it seemed plain sailing to advance from Group B, but the underdogs were not about to lie down.
There was no opposition madness or dark arts involved against Iran, just an enormous slice of Spanish fortune, a clearance clattering into Diego Costa’s shin and spinning into the net for the only goal in Kazan.
Morocco were even trickier opponents, twice leading before Iago Aspas’s 91st-minute equaliser, given via VAR, rescued a draw. Had Aspas’ clever flick not stood, Spain would have advanced over Iran merely on goals scored.
Quite the comedown for a team that was among the pre-tournament favourites.
That is not to say they should now be discounted. Quite the opposite.
Spain have a squad full of quality and, perhaps more importantly, they have players who know what it’s like to win major tournaments, at club and international level.
Six of their current party were present in 2010 while the likes of Dani Carvajal, Thiago, Jordi Alba and Diego Costa have accumulated stacked trophy cabinets across their club careers.
They should be too strong on Sunday for a Russia side whose coruscating start – and the wave of excitement and patriotism it engineered across the host country – appears to have been checked by the 3-0 thumping by Uruguay last time out.
And as they are in the half of the draw widely considered to be the more favourable, they remain one of the sides to beat.
Winning World Cup teams aren’t always the quickest out of the traps.
If any nation knows that, it’s Spain.
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