Ole! Ole! Ole! Spain’s Passing Master Class Leaves Portugal Chasing Shadows

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So how do you neutralize Cristiano Ronaldo, the superstar of epic Nike ads who so rarely does much more than preen and posture in his national team colors? Quite simple, really: You simply don’t let his team have the ball. (And you don’t seriously think glamour-boy Ronaldo goes back and fights for possession, do you? Nope. He occasionally sits on the pitch and gestures to the referee like an Olympic diver who has not been given a score for his latest effort, or otherwise pouts with his hands on his hips on the touchline, waiting to be served up the ball. Perhaps he was “writing the future”, which in his case would be a return to the high life of the Real Madrid galactico, and the hope that with the help of at least some of the players in Spanish shirts tonight (Casillas, Ramos, Capdevilla and Alonso) he won’t be humiliated again in the Spanish league season starting in a few weeks by the same Barcelona players — Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro and now David Villa — who knocked him out of the World Cup.

Cape Town’s stadium was seduced to oohs and aahs by a sublime Barcelona-style Spanish passing-and-pressing game, particularly in the second half, that had Ronaldo, and most of his Portuguese teammates reduced to ineffectual spectators. Despite suffering a few scares early on from quick breaks by the Portuguese, for most of the game it was one-way traffic — as Spain’s 62-38% possession advantage makes clear.

While there was always a chance that the Portuguese could get lucky breaking from a Spanish corner or some other increasingly rare turnover of the ball — and Portugal came close once or twice — for the most part this game had an air of inevitability about it. Alonso and Busquets controlled the middle of the park, giving Xavi the freedom to create, and the ball with which to do it. Striker David Villa played most of the game from wide on the left, drifting inside to frequently threaten the Portuguese goal. Fernando Torres was trying to do the same thing from the right, although after a promising strike on goal early on, he drifted out of the game, further underscoring concerns over his fitness and sharpness. He may be rated one of the world’s best strikers, but he simply hasn’t shown up at the World Cup yet. In fact, it was Torres’ replacement after 60 minutes by the Atletico Bilbao target man Fernando Lloriente that seemed to create the opening for Spain: Minutes after Lloriente came on, he dived onto the end of a cross from the always menacing fullback Sergio Ramos, and almost scored. The big center forward’s back-to-goal physical presence helped unsettle the Portuguese defense, and moments later, Xavi backheeled to Villa dashing in from the left whose first shot was saved by the overworked Portuguese keeper Eduardo, who could do nothing to stop the Spaniard chipping the rebound over him into the net.

One goal was all it took in the end, but the confidence of being ahead saw Xavi and his Barcelona teammate Andres Iniesta turn on the style, and there was always the prospect of more. The 89th minute dismissal of Portuguese defender Ricardo Costa after an off-the-ball incident with Spanish fullback Joan Capdevilla came too late to have any impact on the game.

This was a master class in how to control the game, and assuming Spain get past Paraguay in the quarter finals, an intriguing showdown with the winners of Argentina vs. Germany. On what we saw tonight, that game promises to be a classic.

Memo To England: Not to harp on your demise or anything, but this game seemed to be an object lesson in what’s wrong with English football: For days now, the English papers have been complaining that their team failed to fight hard enough (a standard complaint when England lose) but the Spanish showed that you win games at the World Cup not by superior huff-and-puff effort and willingness to fight, but by out-passing and out-thinking your opponents all over the pitch — virtues not really prized in the English game at its grassroots level. (That’s why when English lower division clubs string together two or three passes, their fans sarcastically sing, “It’s just like watching Brazil”, i.e. this is not how the English are expected to play. And therein lies the reason why it’s unlikely they’ll win a World Cup for the foreseeable future, even if FIFA introduces all manner of technological aids for referees.)