Early Doors

Indulgent Spain show mortal side

Early Doors

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If Navas really was Jesus he would have knelt down to head the ball over the line

When Luka Modric caressed the ball with the outside of his right boot, sending it spinning into the night air in Gdansk, and Ivan Rakitic leapt perfectly at the back post to meet it with a firm header, an overenthusiastic pyrotechnician with an itchy trigger finger in Kharkiv's fan zone set loose a stream of fireworks from the top of the jumbotron in Ploscha Svobody.

He hadn't counted on Iker Casillas. The Spain captain threw out his arms to produce a brilliant save to deny the Croatia midfielder a goal that, had La Furia Roja not responded to it, would have sent the world and European champions out - at the group stage of Euro 2012. Potentially the most explosive story of this tournament was averted, the real fireworks put on hold.

Even having survived such a huge scare, Spain were fortunate not to concede a disastrous late penalty when Sergio Busquets manhandled Vedran Corluka with little time remaining. Within a minute, Jesus Navas had scored a goal that finally dispelled the tension for Spain, and undeservedly ended Croatia's impressive campaign in Poland with a 1-0 win. On such thin margins do success and failure rest.

The goal was a moment of beauty — a lofted pass from Cesc Fabregas, a quick control and square ball from Andres Iniesta — though to be honest Navas would have earned more style points had he fulfilled the dream of every schoolboy and knelt down to head the ball over the line. That's definitely what Early Doors would have done.

Though ultimately they top the group with a more than acceptable seven points, the group stages — a 4-0 evisceration of Ireland aside — have shown Spain to be vulnerable, mortal. Certainly they do not look to be quite the insurmountable barrier to England's ambitions — should it be they who finish second in Group D — as they may have done prior to the start of the tournament.

While Italy defeated Ireland 2-0 courtesy of goals from Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli to do all they could to push for a place in the quarter-finals, Vicente del Bosque rather curiously said speculation Spain would collude with Croatia to play out a 2-2 draw that would have definitely sent the Italians home put added pressure on his team.

"We've taken off our back all of this mess about the draw. It was more a weight to deal with than an advantage," he said. "The result would have been good for us, but maybe this [draw prediction] made us a bit confused."

Certainly at times it did look as though Spain weren't quite sure of the fact that they were in a vulnerable position in the group, because for most of the match in Gdansk, their pretty passing patterns had little in the way of urgency or final product. This was tiki-taka for the sake of it; shots were spurned with regularity. It was, to be honest, just like watching Arsenal on one of their particularly stylish yet ultimately impotent days.

Even when Del Bosque did make a change, he reverted to the 4-6-0 system on show against Italy when introducing Navas for Fernando Torres. Navas scored the winner — validating the tactical switch to an extent — but on a night when they pushed their luck, it left Early Doors wondering whether Spanish football has begun to eat itself somewhat.

Using David Silva and then Fabregas as false nines when Fernando Llorente — scorer of 30 goals for club and country this season — remained stuck on the bench, yet to play a single minute of football at Euro 2012, was bizarre.

ED has long thought Barcelona have had an unnecessarily indulgent streak to them — as if Pep Guardiola felt they had to prove a point. Merely winning matches wasn't enough; he wanted to demonstrate he was transforming perceptions of the game too. This was driven home most forcefully when he started fielding only a couple of natural defenders or using Fabregas as a striker at times last season.

It appears this aspect of Barcelona's culture — as so many others before it — is now infiltrating the national side.

Del Bosque stuck pretty closely to the blueprint handed to him by Luis Aragones when taking over the Spanish national team in 2008 — a system that centred around David Villa as the key man in attack. Losing the country's all-time record goalscorer to injury prior to the tournament was of course a huge setback, but it did not force Del Bosque to reappraise an approach that saw Spain emerge triumphant at both Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010. In fact, he was already doing so.

When Spain played England in November at Wembley they shifted Villa out wide and played with Silva through the centre. The result, though Spain dominated possession and had many more chances than the hosts, was a 1-0 win for England.

ED isn't against invention and imagination in football: it loves Antonin Panenka; goes all wobbly at the sight of a Cruyff turn; and applauded Robert Pires when he tried to pass to Thierry Henry from the penalty spot. But when it comes at the cost of potentially undermining a great side then it starts to become less admirable.

Such is the vast array of talent at Spain's disposal it is right they remain favourites for Euro 2012. They are arguably one of the most technically proficient teams in the history of football and there is a very good chance they will become the first to win three successive major tournaments. They will probably do so without a striker and with eight midfielders instead.

But on Monday night, as they casually popped the ball around the stadium in Gdansk, they came within an Iker Casillas save of potentially missing out on a third consecutive major tournament triumph and a unique place in football's history.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I was delighted to get Liverpool first game. I've got nothing but good memories from my time at Liverpool so to face them in the first game, here at The Hawthorns, will be fantastic." - West Brom boss Steve Clarke reacts to the release of the 2012-13 Premier League fixtures. Really? Nothing but good memories? Really?

FOREIGN VIEW: "He was the voice of football for millions of people and he was my friend" - UEFA president Michel Platini pays tribute to legendary French commentator Thierry Roland, who died at the weekend, as he announced a minute's silence will be held before France's game against Sweden this evening in tribute to him.

COMING UP: It's crunch time in Group D as the quarter-final line-up will be completed tonight. Follow live coverage of England v Ukraine and Sweden v France at 7:45pm this evening.

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