Spain Faces its Test of Fire

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It’s not that Spain’s quick passing “progressive possession” game can’t match the whirlwind of attacking exuberance and defensive tigritude that is Joachim Low’s youthful German side; after all, Barcelona, on whose game and players the Spanish team’s approach is based, have for years been one of Europe’s top club teams. But the Spain that has shown up in South Africa seems to play the game short of its natural tempo, with a kind of ponderous passing and lack of rhythm that has seen them squeeze by lesser opponents rather than demolish them in the way that the Germans have done to reach the semi-final. Both lost a group game (Spain to Switzerland; Germany to Serbia). But the Germans have been far more convincing. And the pace and verve of their attacks could expose some holes in Spain’s defensive system — and rip some new ones.

On paper, any team that boasts the strike partnership of David Villa and Fernando Torres, and provides them with service from Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Xabi Alonso ought to have opposing defenses quaking in their boots — and that’s before they glance over at the bench and realize that the Spanish could also reshuffle their attack by calling on, among others, Cesc Fabregas, Jesus Navas, David Silva or Fernando Llorente. But whatever their merits on paper, the team has scarcely gotten going. Torres has been largely ineffectual, perhaps because a series of long-term injuries has left him recovering from his second surgery of the season, and the reason for using him may well be simply that he’s Fernando Torres, and no side can afford to leave him unattended in their half of the field for fear that he could produce that one moment of magic — as he did in the Euro 2008 final against Germany — that turns a match. Villa has toiled long and hard for his four goals, each of them in its own way a lifesaver to a team whose other goal threats have largely failed to unlock resolute defenses. Indeed, opposing teams have cottoned on to the fact that to stop Spain playing, you have to prevent Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso from having any time on the ball to pick the killer pass. Leave space and time on the ball for Busquets, the least creative of the midfielders, and stay tight on the others. That may be one reason why so many of Spain’s forays forward in so many games have gone through right back Sergio Ramos. And for the most part, those have proved pretty harmless — against Germany, he’ll have Lukas Podolski to cope with, which may also limit his opportunities for adventure in the German half.

The problem for Spain’s possession game is that German team is unique in its mobility, and the speed with which it can swarm into attack (centerback Arnie Friedrich’s goal from a Schweinsteiger cutback against Argentina on Saturday was not from a setpiece or immediately after one; he’d bombed forward to join the attack) and just as quickly rally to defend. Sometimes, leaving the gifted midfielder Mesut alone up front, even striker Miroslav Klose can be found making tackles on the edge of his own area. Nobody in this team is too good for cleanup duties, and their fitness and youth allows them to quickly rally overwhelming numbers at both ends of the field. The player that drives and personifies this team’s ethos is Bastian Schweinsteiger, the Bayern Munich midfield general who is Germany’s first line of defense at the base of the midfield alongside Sami Khedira, but can also carry and pass the ball with devastating effect — quite possibly the most complete player on view at the 2010 World Cup.

Schweinsteiger and company will not only create problems for Spain’s creative trio, but they’ll also sorely test Busquets and Alonso’s defensive capabilities. Moreover, the Spanish centerbacks’ habit of defending a high line could be devastatingly exposed by the zippy Germans whose gorgeous thirty-yard first-time flicks from the wings into the channels and out again get the ball into the opponent’s final third in a matter of nanoseconds, as Argentina repeatedly discovered to its horror last Saturday. Carles Puyol, Joan Capdevilla and Sergio Ramos are not the quickest, and that could cost Spain. One bit of relief for Capdevilla is the news that Thomas Mueller, the left winger who has been a revelation in South Africa, is suspended from Wednesday’s match. Still, Germany has more than enough pace and skill at the direct game to shatter Spain’s defenses.

Experience and accomplishment should still give the edge to Spain — if even just Torres, Villa and Xavi are at the top of their games and have the ball to work with, they could subject this young German team to a harsh examination — but form at the tournament has to give Germany the edge. Either way, this one is destined to be a classic.