RIO DE JANEIRO -- It was just one game. It was a dramatic game and a staggering result, but ultimately Spain’s 5-1 defeat to the Netherlands, as Vicente del Bosque was at pains to make out on Tuesday, was just one game.
There will be no ripping up of the philosophical blueprint: Spain is the defending world champion, it has won the last two European Championships and it will stick to the style of play that brought its success as it looks to re-establish itself in the World Cup in Wednesday’s vital Group B game against Chile.
“The truth is that we lost a game,” said Del Bosque. “We played badly, they were better, the trio of Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben were superior to us, and from that we have to look forward and look for the solution. The reality is we have our future in our hands, no one else’s, and that’s what we have to look to.”
Still, it would be a major surprise if there were not changes for the game against Chile, the side that – even though it lost 2-1 – probably unsettled Spain more than anybody else at the last World Cup. There is perhaps significance in that. Chile then, as now, played a hard-pressing game based on a back three with four midfielders and a playmaker – the same shape, if not quite the same style as that used by the Netherlands. Spain has become used to sides sitting deep against it, letting it have the ball and hoping to frustrate it.
The Dutch, though, disrupted the Spanish midfield through weight of numbers and was then able to take advantage of Spain’s high line (and its sluggishness at the back) thanks to the extreme pace of Robben coupled with the hard press. The bad news for Spain is that Chile will present a very similar challenge, with Alexis Sanchez taking the Robben role.
“We think that the match is going to be like any match we play against Chile,” said forward Fernando Torres. “It’ll be a really intense game. They’ll risk a lot because they’ve had good results like that. We have to fight from the beginning but have to keep calm and have to be able to interpret each situation. One of the problems against Holland was we were not able to interpret what was going on; normally we know when we have to be faster or more direct. They’re very strong and very intense.”
Iker Casillas, despite his poor display against the Netherlands, will probably keep his place in goal, with David De Gea, who is out with a pulled leg muscle. Gerard Pique, though, may not be so fortunate, with strong suggestions that Javi Martinez will come in alongside Sergio Ramos in the centre of defense, while Juanfran might replace Cesar Azpilicueta at right back, adding greater attacking thrust.
Time may at last be about to be called on Xavi, who at 34 can no longer press with the same intensity as he once did. Koke could replace him. Diego Costa disappointed in his competitive debut and may be vulnerable, while the introduction of Pedro on the right to add pace to an attack that seemed static and predictable seems probable.
The biggest issue, though, may be restoring belief. That mantra of just one game is easy to say, and it’s easy to point out that Spain lost 1-0 to Switzerland in its first game of the last World Cup, but the way it lost composure having fallen behind against the Dutch suggested a psychological breakdown. After all, Spain can hardly be blamed if it has forgotten how to respond when a team comes back at it.
Such was its control of possession that as soon as it went ahead it meant the match was over: before the Dutch game, it hadn’t lost a competitive game in which it had taken the lead since a 3-2 reverse against Northern Ireland in September 2006.
“It’s true that we have started in way that makes it difficult to feel as we felt before,” said Andres Iniesta, “but still I think that what happened during our first match is something we must forget. We have to put that behind us and play two more matches that are like finals. We had a similar situation during the last World Cup. We will all give our best to win and go to the second phase. I trust myself and my colleagues and I think we’re able to do it. The most important thing is that we win and we have to win however works.”
Four years ago, Spain responded with a 2-0 win over Honduras and that 2-1 success against Chile that meant it topped the group, consigning its opponents to a last-16 tie against Brazil. The way things look now, a second-round game against Brazil is the best scenario for which Spain can hope.
Fail to beat Chile, and the world champion is almost certainly out.