Nobody in the Spain camp could have envisioned Friday night’s shock 5-1 defeat to the Netherlands in their Group B opener. But swift action must now be taken or the reigning champions will follow 2006 winners Italy and 1998 winners France in crashing out of the next competition at the first hurdle.
La Roja now must likely emphatically win their remaining two group games against Chile and Australia to have any chance of progressing to the Round of 16. To achieve that some sweeping changes are needed — in both personnel and mentality.
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Speaking after Friday’s game coach Vicente del Bosque admitted his side had taken a beating, while trying to play down its longer-term implications.
"I am aware that this is a delicate moment," del Bosque said. "But between us all we must try to resolve it. From there we can look for a win against Chile and take it from there. This is not the time for a revolution."
But revolution was exactly the thought on the minds of many Spanish fans and pundits after the game.
There have already been loud calls for changes for Wednesday’s second group game against Chile in Rio De Janeiro, and the dropping of those held responsible for such an historic defeat.
Del Bosque will make changes, but not too many. He knows that previously all-conquering players — such as Iker Casillas, Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Ramos and Andres Iniesta — have not suddenly lost their skill or ability. The issue was more when faced by adversity, when the game became a battle, many players lost heart. The Dutch also had veterans — such as Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben. But the Oranj were quicker to every ball and more convincing in everything they did.
The defeat brought to mind last year’s 3-0 Confederations Cup final defeat to Brazil, when Spain were outfought by the hosts. It also recalled Barcelona’s soulless 7-0 aggregate capitulation to Bayern Munich in the 2012-13 Champions League semifinals, another fixture in which an aging and tired looking team was overwhelmed by faster, stronger, more motivated opponents.
Later on Friday night, del Bosque did identify that lack of physical strength and commitment through the spine of the team — even using the word "weakness" in at least two separate interviews. He had however contributed to that problem himself by removing holding midfielder Xabi Alonso at 2-1 to send on another attacker. Meanwhile Xavi Hernandez, 34, played the full 90 minutes, but was barely seen as the center just opened up and Holland poured straight through. Atletico Madrid’s more vigorous Koke, 22, must now come into the team against Chile.
A lot of the blame for the defeat has been aimed at Iker Casillas — who was badly at fault for the Netherlands’ third and fourth goals. But Spain’s long serving captain and goalkeeper will not be dropped. Casillas and del Bosque are extra-close, and Spain’s back-ups — Pepe Reina and David de Gea — both lack senior international experience.
The centerback pairing of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique had terrible performances — with the first two Dutch goals directly down to errors in communication and positioning. Bayern Munich’s versatile Javi Martinez is looking sure to start at the back against Chile, with Pique likely to drop out.
Further forward the Diego Costa experiment must be parked for now. Costa’s direct running did win the penalty from which Alonso fired Spain ahead, but he disappeared completely after the break and could even have been sent off for an apparent head-butt on Dutch defender Bruno Martins Indi. David Silva could also pay for missing a relatively simple chance to Spain 2-0 ahead in the first half. Pedro Rodriguez’s pace and hard working style means he must now start, while Cesc Fabregas and maybe David Villa too could also face the Chileans.
More important than any personnel changes however is the task of lifting the mood around the camp. The Spanish media were predictably downbeat on Saturday morning, with headlines such as "Global Humiliation," "A Historic Defeat" and "The Worst Nightmare of the Champion" covering the newsstands. Veterans Casillas, Xavi and Iniesta also looked shocked as they faced the media after the game.
Del Bosque will need to use all his experience to get his players to forget any recriminations and focus forward on turning things around. The amiable 63-year-old must let his players know that reputation and skill alone will not get them out of this hole — they must now prove they can dig in and fight, too.
Chile’s 3-1 win over Australia in the other Group B game has not made Spain’s task any easier. Jorge Sampaoli’s side’s all-action energetic style will test any rival’s physical and mental strength. Australia’s battling performance showed its young team could also cause problems for La Roja’s elder statesmen.
Four years ago, Spain did bounce back from an [admittedly less traumatic] defeat in their first game to go on and win the tournament. A best-case scenario now looks like two wins which would set up a hugely difficult last 16 meeting with hosts Brazil. To get even that far will require the usually super-loyal del Bosque to come down hard on some of his longest serving players.