29 June ~ Their nerves frayed by an unexpectedly testing group phase, Spain fans have been given further cause for concern by President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s confident prediction ahead of the match with Portugal. Speaking at the close of last weekend’s Toronto G20 summit, the nation’s beleaguered leader said: “I told nearly everyone that Spain will be in the final and I hope I am right.”
Given Zapatero’s falsely optimistic forecasts of domestic economic recovery over the last year, his appraisal of La Roja’s chances has been met with resignation by fans across the country, their confidence in Vicente del Bosque’s side already eroded by faltering performances, tactical changes and mounting criticism from the pundits.
Confidence, always a volatile commodity during Spanish World Cup campaigns, has seeped away to such an extent that Portugal are now viewed as slight favourites by many going into Tuesday evening’s Iberian derby. The much-quoted defensive record of Carlos Quieroz’s side (only three goals conceded in their last 19 games) is one reason for the palpable sense of foreboding on the Spanish side of the border; the threat posed by a hyper-motivated Cristiano Ronaldo another.
Four years ago an irked Zinedine Zidane inspired France to a 3-1 defeat of Spain at the same stage of the competition. Mindful of the part they played in winding up the French legend, with Marca vowing that that game would be his last international appearance, the Spanish press have been more guarded with their headlines this time. Cristiano, get ready announced the Madrid daily after the European champions saw off Chile to top their group.
Spain’s recent achievements ought to invite greater optimism. Two years ago to the day they won Euro 2008, a triumph that Del Bosque, out of his concern for continuity, has always sought to build on. Concerned, however, that his side have been too easily stretched in their opening games, he had them adopt a more pragmatic approach against the Chileans. Del Bosque continues to laugh off suggestions he has sacrificed the patented possession game, and the squad is maintaining a united front.
The columnists have yet to be convinced, however, and with key players such Fernando Torres and Xavi continuing to underperform, the sense of unease is growing. Writing in AS, Alfredo Relaño expressed his disquiet at this new Spain: “It’s almost the same team, but it’s not the same. I’m sorry Del Bosque’s changed it. He says he hasn’t but everyone can see that he has.”
A downbeat Luis Aragonés continues to snipe away, suggesting yesterday that Portugal will win fairly comfortably if they can deny their opponents the ball, and Johan Cruyff has identified the doble pivote formed by Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets as an unnecessary and cumbersome insurance policy. All will be well if Del Bosque’s tinkering reaps rewards against the Portuguese. If it does not, he can expect an even rougher ride than the embattled Zapatero has had of late. James Calder