Spain 3 (Villa, Alonso, Llorente) Saudi Arabia 2 (Hawasawi, Namare)
Although Spain’s narrow 3-2 victory over Saudi Arabia, snatched at the last minute thanks to a Fernando Llorente header, may appear, on paper, to be a relatively poor result for the reigning European Champions and World Cup favourites, such an analysis would not be an accurate one.
With Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas both doubts for the game with knee and shin injuries respectively, Vicente Del Bosque adapted his system, dispensing with the 4-4-2 formation he used throughout the majority of his team’s qualifying campaign, instead opting for a 4-2-3-1 using Barcelona’s David Villa as the lone striker. The one experiment at the back saw Alvaro Arbeloa tested at left-back alongside the more established trio of Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol. Del Bosque made a handful of changes to his back line over the course of the second period, shifting Arbeloa to his natural position as a right-back, whilst bringing Carlos Marchena in at centre-half alongside Pique and slotting Joan Capdevila in at left-back.
In the midfield, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets were deployed as the holding midfielders and played the full 90 minutes (a strong signal as to Del Bosque’s plans for South Africa?), whilst Xavi adopted a more advanced central role with Andres Iniesta and David Silva the nominal right and left-sided players, although they swapped flanks regularly and to good effect throughout the match before being replaced by Jesus Navas and Pedro, both of whom gave impressively high-tempo performances, on the hour. Athletic Bilbao’s Javi Martinez also made an appearance, coming on for Xavi, but struggled to make an impact and is almost certain to be consigned to a non-playing role this summer as the third-choice central creative midfielder behind both Xavi and Fabregas.
Up front, David Villa was changed for Fernando Llorente with around 20 minutes to go, the Bilbao striker making a favourable impression, scoring the winning goal and displaying a good work ethic in the limited playing time he was afforded by Del Bosque. Llorente is a superb option for the Spanish Coach to have on the bench and, all being well, could have an important role to play in South Africa as an impact substitute should La Furia Roja ever be struggling to break their opponents down.
How Spain started (top) and finished (bottom) the game:
Spain played some excellent football this evening, particularly in the wide areas where full-backs were beaten and crossing opportunities created with great regularity, but, despite the ease and comfort the Spanish exuded when in possession, there were a few minor question marks over the defensive performance.
Usually so adept at dealing with set-pieces, Saudi Arabia’s first goal, a header from an unmarked Osama Hawasawi, saw an uncharacteristic lack of communication between Iker Casillas and Gerard Pique which allowed the Saudi defender to steal in to convert the corner. There were also issues with Alvaro Arbeloa’s performance, the Real Madrid man being caught out of position on several occasions, particularly at left-back where Carlos Puyol ended up bailing him out far too often than he should have had to. This game was a big chance for Arbeloa to impress and challenge Capdevila for the position on the left of defence, but it is unlikely that the former Liverpool man’s display will have increased his chances of making the starting eleven come June 16th.
Yes, there were a small number of defensive issues highlighted by a headstrong Saudi Arabian side tonight, but Spain played some of their typically excellent football and dominated possession for large swathes of the game. The European Champions were particularly impressive during the second half when Pedro and Navas caused their opponents some real problems in combination with the intelligent overlapping runs of the full-backs, and were unlucky to concede a second goal which came via a fluke deflection leaving Iker Casillas stranded.
Don’t believe the stories of Spanish capitulation elements of the British tabloid press will undoubtedly spin tomorrow, La Roja don’t have anything to be concerned about just yet.