On Friday the 13th of June, Spain and Netherlands contested the opening match of Group B. It was billed as one of the most attractive fixtures of the group stage. The two finalists of the last World Cup facing off directly. Revenge on the minds of the Dutch. Reaffirmation of the status quo on those of the Spaniards.
There were no major surprises in the respective line-ups or formations of either teams. But the kits the teams emerged in left something to be desired. Oddly, both teams came out in their away kits. Rather than red and orange, we had white and blue. You would’ve been forgiven for thinking you were watching England v France instead of Spain v Netherlands.
The match started as expected, with Spain controlling proceedings and dictating the run of play, and the Netherlands sitting back, happy to absorb the pressure and counter when the opportunity arose. There was one major difference though. In as early as the 2nd minute, Pique tried a long ball from the back to Costa. This wasn’t a one-off. Throughout the match, Spain’s defenders and midfielders were happy to try diagonal long balls or passes over the top to Costa and Silva. This would’ve never happened in the Spain of Euro ’08, World Cup ’10, or Euro ’12. Back then, Tiki-Taka was in full force. Control through possession was the main priority. On Friday, possession was still the strength but not an obsession anymore. The willingness to sacrifice possession, and control, for more direct options was stronger than in any other match in a major tournament in recent memory. This was the least Tiki-Taka Spain side since the beginning of their golden era in 2008.
Nonetheless, the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, David Silva and Xabi Alonso were dictating proceedings, and in the 26th minute, Spain took the lead when Xavi made a beautifully weighted pass to Costa on the left who cut inside and was caught by the trailing leg of De Vrij which brought him down. The referee pointed to the spot. Alonso stepped up and slotted it neatly into the bottom left corner. At that moment, it seemed both of Vicente Del Bosque’s decisions – to have a more direct style of play and to start with Diego Costa – had been vindicated. The Brazilian-born Costa had been picked ahead of Villa and Torres to lead the line and had been quiet until the penalty. He had also been booed every time he touched the ball by the mostly local crowd who remembered that Costa has decided to represent his adopted nation rather than the nation of his birth.
Robin Van Persie's extraordinary goal
Spain hadn’t really kicked into top gear but they were controlling proceedings and now had a 1-0 lead. Spain’s high defensive line was giving the Netherlands’ attacking trio – Van Persie, Robben and Sneijder – hope but, overall, things were going to plan for La Roja. However, just before half-time, the match got its turning point. Daley Blind put a long ball into the Spanish penalty box from close to the halfway line on the left. Van Persie anticipated wonderfully, ran into the box past Pique and Ramos, saw Casillas off the line, and scored an early contender for the goal of the tournament with a wonderful lob-header into the far right corner. Moments earlier, Silva had missed a glorious chance, from a sublime Iniesta pass, to double Spain’s lead. One moment, it had looked like Spain would be take a 2-0 lead into halftime; the next, the match was all square.
The equalizer put the wind in Oranje’s sails. They started the second half the same way they ended the first – by scoring a goal. Another high ball from the left. Again from the brilliant Blind. Robben controlled superbly with his first touch, got past Pique with his second and scored past a diving Ramos with his third. Holland had turned the game on its head in a matter of minutes. But they didn’t sit back after taking the lead. They could smell blood and they went for the kill. First, Van Persie rattled the cross bar with a wonderful right-footed strike, and then the lead was extended in the 64th minute when a Sneijder freekick sailed over Casillas and was bundled in at the far post. Spain were rattled and what followed was a complete meltdown. Spain’s defence – especially, Casillas, Pique and Ramos – had lost all confidence, in themselves and in each other. First, Casillas made a complete hash of a back pass from which Van Persie capitalized and scored, and then to complete the misery, Robben went around Casillas, made Pique and Ramos look like schoolboy defenders, and scored the fifth.
At full-time, the score was 5-1. Five. An unbelievable score line for Spain, for the Netherlands and for everyone watching. Netherlands had been clinical. They had been merciless. For Spain, this wasn’t just a defeat. This was a thrashing, a humiliation, the effects of which stretch far beyond just the three points contested on the night. The worst defeat for a defending champion in World Cup history. Del Bosque described it as “the most painful defeat of my whole career."
The next morning, Marca, the Spanish sports daily, had a mostly black front cover which simply said: "Fix This". From here on, each match is a must win for Spain. They only have a few days to pick themselves up. If they don’t beat Chile on Wednesday, they will most likely find themselves 3 points off second spot with a minus 6 goal difference disadvantage. Near certain elimination. Expect Del Bosque to make one of two changes to his side. Either he will revert back to the tried and tested Tiki-Taka, making control through possession his main priority. Or he will persist with the more direct approach, but with significant changes to the starting XI with the likes of Koke and Martinez potentially coming in. Knowing Del Bosque’s reluctance to tinker too much with his starting XI, I’d expect him to go by the former. But these are desperate times. Even Del Bosque may have been stirred into a change he wouldn’t normally make.
Friday the 13th is considered an unlucky day in the Netherlands. In Spain, the 13th carries no such significance. Their equivalent is Friday the 17th. What happened this past Friday may cause both peoples to modify their superstitions. The Spaniards would be tempted to change the date the 13th. The Dutch, well, they might do away with the superstition altogether.
The author is an ex-investment banker, currently managing a TV station and a college, and a self-proclaimed football pundit who loves to ramble about the ‘beautiful game’ to anyone willing to listen. He tweets @BilalAKayani and can be reached at email@example.com
(February 20, 2018)
(February 16, 2018)