Sunday, March 29, 2009

Spain v Turkey, World Cup Qualifiers, March 28

Two of the best teams (indeed one of them the Champions) from Euro 2008 competed in this World Cup qualifier and there was a lot that this game told us about how these teams have progressed (or regressed) since.

Fatih Terim rarely had the luxury of fielding the same squad twice in Euro ’08 and hence the team that played had a touch of familiarity with a face unknown to casual observers thrown into the mix. Mehmet Aurelio, Nihat, Tuncay, Senturk and friends had wowed us all throughout the European showpiece event and they put up a commendable performance against the continental champions in their backyard. In fact, so equal were they in ability and threat to their hosts, that they will be furious that one moment of defensive madness was what led to Spain’s 1-0 win and will be kicking themselves for it.

Both teams lined up in 4-4-2s but how they utilized their personnel had significant differences. Turkey played a more conventional game with Tuncay providing the width on the right and Arda Turan charging down the left. Emre and Aurelio manned the centre of the pitch while Nihat and Sneturk formed the attacking duo. Three of the four in midfield that Spain employed were central midfielders and that is exactly how they played. Xavi, Senna and X Alonso all had a range of passes and were commanding in their roles but were all responsible for relatively small parts of the pitch. Cazorla kept alternating between right and left as the only wide man and Torres and Villa were expected to provide a bundle of goals in front of this strong lineup. A big change for Spain was that their central defensive pairing consisted of Albiol and Piquet and while Marchena had never looked too spectacular for his national team, a personality like Puyol is always going to be missed.

Spain’s win last year was hardly a surprise because not only did they have the best eleven players, but they also had the best functioning team that played with a lot of fluidity and rarely let the opposition trouble them. That was achieved under Luis Aragones, a man imminently difficult to like as much for his personality as for his management skills up until that time. Now, the eminently more affable Del Bosque is in charge who comes across as much more of a winner than Aragones and yet seeing the Spanish team play under him, one was often found to be missing the free flowing Spain of Aragones’ days.

With three players all preferring to stay in deep midfield positions, the fullbacks spent a lot of time pushing forward trying to provide the width. The Turks stayed back in numbers and cut off the long cross field passes made by Alonso, Xavi and Senna and managed to isolate Villa and Torres effectively. In fact, so little threat was posed by the two great strikers that the game was dying for a change in tactics.

Turkey waited patiently to win the ball at the back and then tried to hit on the counter whenever they could. With the Spanish fullbacks spending most of their time upfield, both Arda Turan and Tuncay found enough space to charge forward and bring Nihat and Senturk in the play, often using Emre and Aurelio effectively as link up men. If they were not able to break down the Spanish defense, it was largely down to the fact the Senna and Alonso served as backup defenders for most of the game and the Turkish strikers while being dangerous enough, probably were not in the league to navigate through the obstacles in front of them.

The goal was conceded in the second half in a phase of two minutes of bad defending by the Turks. A long ball played to Torres was held up masterfully by the ace striker and though three defenders tried to take it away from him, he held it long enough to earn a free kick right on the right edge of the opposition box. This was the first lapse that allowed for a set-piece on a dangerous place, but it was pale in comparison to how poor they were in clearing Xavi’s free kick. Xavi floated an inviting ball to the far post and Sergio Ramos was found completely unmarked for a simple tap into goal. Only, Ramos scuffed it and played it right across goal which could potentially have provided two defenders the opportunity to clear the danger. Instead they were both found wanting and the ball reached Piquet who made no mistake with his tap-in (which was quite ferocious for a tap in I must add). Terim was furious and I am sure the players would all be equally disappointed with the effort as after this, though Spain improved with some change in tactics, they did not really come really close to scoring another.

If the championship winning Spanish side had looked good playing in a 4-4-2, they were irresistible when a Villa injury had forced them to go with five in midfield. When Villa was substituted for Mata, the change made Spain more effective. Ramos had been a constant threat on the right but Capdevilla though matching Ramos in energy and ambition had not caused the same amount of trouble to the Turks and hence Mata’s presence on the left added an extra dimension to the Spanish attack. Later David Silva came on for a tiring Cazorla and he provided a similar impetus on the right. Turkey continued to be organized and difficult to break down, but after Silva came on they were pressured enough at the back to find very few chances of going forward.

It ended one nil and Spain managed to sneak it past some very tough opposition. Individually, the players all put in good performances with Sergio Ramos being my man of the match. Though the strikers did not rattle the opposition enough, it is fair to say that a large part of it was down to the good work put in by the entire Turkish team. They will be rightly pleased with the three points and nothing about their results in the qualifiers indicates that they are anywhere lesser than the team that was all conquering last summer. Yet looking at them play last night, it was difficult not to think that something was missing from their armory.

To my mind, the biggest flaw yesterday seemed to be in having not two but three similar players in the middle of the park. Had Xavi been trying to play in the hole behind the strikers, it could have been a different game, but as it was, they seemed to all be playing for the same ball and looking for the same passes ever so often. With Iniesta and Fabregas both being available soon enough for selection, the problem of abundance in that area is only going to grow for Del Bosque. His challenge will be in making hard decisions in keeping some of them on the bench and identifying players who will take some of the load off the full backs as well as be able to get the strikers into play more often.

As for Turkey, they continue to be the team that consistently adds up to more than the some total of its parts. Their performance against Spain confirmed that they are quite capable of rubbing shoulders with the big boys and last year’s run to the semis was not a freak occurring. The goals that Nihat, Senturk and Tuncay score will be critical in ensuring their progress and for the sake of the World Cup, I hope they managed to find those magical strikes again and again and again. They didn’t last night, but maybe if the law of averages means that they miss out on a few games, they picked a good occasion to let it happen.

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