Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Land Of Hope And…..More Hope

Today sees Spain’s first game in the World Cup so it’s a good time to cast an eye on their squad and to make some probably wildly inaccurate predictions about their fate in the competition. In the last two World Cups, and especially in 1998, Spanish hopes for success were high; but the result in both cases was disappointment. This time the atmosphere is a bit more subdued and fatalistic, supporters of the national team have prepared themselves for the worst as a defence against more disappointment. In their recent games, the team has not impressed even though the results have been sufficient to see them through.

If the current Spanish squad is going to be found seriously wanting in any department this time, then it is probably going to be in attack. The line up today against Ukraine is predicted to leave Raul, previously an untouchable, on the bench for the start of the game. This is a result of two seasons where he has failed to perform both at club and international level. This leaves Spain’s attack in the hands of Fernando Torres, a player who has never lived up to expectations and is regarded by many as being seriously overrated, and David Villa of Valencia who has been the revelation of the season with 25 goals. Villa lacks international experience but if he comes good then perhaps the attack will not be found wanting. Fernando Morientes, after his disappointing spell with Liverpool, has not even made it into the full squad.

Midfield is where all the true strengths are to be found, the combination of players such as Alonso, Xavi, Cesc, Garcia with support from Reyes and Joaquin on the wings provides real options, although personally I think both Joaquin and Reyes have serious problems in knowing when to release the ball which often leaves both of them heading pointlessly but fast towards the corner flags. But midfield should not be the root of any problems that the team encounters in the tournament. Defence could be problematical, although it’s not the weakest part of the team. Casillas is very capable in goal, while players such as Puyol, Ramos, Salgado and company are all competent if not outstanding. However, Shevchenko should provide an interesting test for them.

The trainer is Luis Aragones, who has been around for so long that even the word veteran probably isn’t sufficient to describe him. Widely regarded as a caretaker trainer because they couldn’t find anyone better at the time, his best days are almost certainly behind him. His ‘old school’ methods led to his notorious racist remark about Thierry Henry, excused by many Spanish on the grounds that he was ‘motivating’ his players. If that’s the only way he can find to do it, it’s a little bit depressing. Showing an unnerving ability to talk when he should keep quiet, and to say nothing when he should speak out, retirement beckons for him regardless of what happens in the tournament.

So on to the predictions, this is a team that will get no further than the quarter finals without either a large dose of luck, or the emergence of a coherence and style which has largely been absent in the last few years. Often eliminated by the single goal, after missing at least one penalty, and with the referee taking the rap for all their misfortunes, it’s hard to see things being different this time. A 1-0 defeat against France in the first knockout round – there, I’ve said it and it will almost certainly be wrong.

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