Shell-shocked Spain look to bounce back in clash with Chile

MADRID —

It has not been easy for Spain’s players or fans to get over their shock 5-1 hammering by the Netherlands in last Friday’s World Cup opening Group B game.

"This has been the most painful defeat of my whole career," coach Vicente Del Bosque said soon after the final whistle. "That was my worst game with the national team," said shell-shocked goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who had been badly at fault for at least two of the Dutch side’s goals.

The painful therapy sessions continued in the following days.

"It was one of the worst games of my life," said defender Sergio Ramos the following morning. "Seeing the team broken like that in the last 20 minutes, we wanted the game to end right then," said substitute Santi Cazorla on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Spain’s previously optimistic supporters turned negative. Sixty percent of respondents to an online poll run by Madrid sports paper AS said they believed Spain would not make it out of Group B. There were also widespread calls for those held responsible — including captain Casillas, veteran tiki-taka symbol Xavi Hernandez and new striker Diego Costa — all to be dropped for Wednesday’s second group game against Chile in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium.

But Del Bosque has held firm against the tide of criticism — and kept repeating his mantra that there was no need for a revolution.

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"I was worried after the Holland game, but that does not bring you anywhere," he said on Monday. "We must lift ourselves up as we’re still alive. We know what is on the line now. We are not singling out anybody, but there could be just two or three changes. We are in the situation we are in, and we have to manage it. We are flexible but also want to maintain some things."

The first position to be ‘maintained’ in Spain’s XI will be goalkeeper and captain, with del Bosque sure to keep faith with a player he has known for over two decades. The two or three new players could be Atletico Madrid’s Koke in midfield, Bayern Munich’s Javi Martinez in defense and Barcelona’s Pedro Rodriguez on the wing. Costa looks set to keep his place in attack, both because the veteran seleccionador can be stubborn about his selection decisions, and he knows Chile is so physically weak at the back.

Out of the spotlight Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli is also planning some tweaks to his side. South America’s ‘La Roja’ impressed in roaring into a 2-0 lead in its opener against Australia, but was rocked by Tim Cahill’s comeback goal, and ended up mightily relieved when substitute Jean Beausejour assured a 3-1 win. Sampaoli’s plan now involves changing to a three man defensive line — with Osasuna’s Francisco ‘el Gato’ Silva likely to come in at the back.

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The physical battle is also likely to be intense — particularly as the teams know each other so well after three meetings in the last four years. Chile scored twice in both their recent friendly games, with all-action kamikaze attacking overcoming Spain’s rigid midfield and defense. This confrontational style even led to a mass brawl when the teams met in a friendly in 2011.

Chile midfielder Arturo Vidal – who will again start despite not being fully recovered from a recent knee operation – said his side will again pile forward hoping to force mistakes from their opponents.

"We like to be a ‘half-suicidal’ team,” says Juventus star Vidal. "Few teams can press the way we do, but we have the athleticism and capacity to do it. It will be a good game against Spain, they need to win. A draw will do for us, but we will go out to win as we always do."

So it all points towards yet another exciting game in what is already an epic World Cup. The drama of seeing the reigning champion so comprehensively dismantled on day two helped build the feeling we are witnessing something special in Brazil, but as the days go by the realization that Spain is still a viable contender has returned.

Del Bosque’s team remain the Las Vegas bookies’ fourth favorites to win the tournament – rated to have a similar chance to the Dutch despite that 5-1 scoreline. It is also seen as more likely to lift the trophy than either France or Italy, who both started their campaigns with impressive victories. If Spain’s spirit has not been broken, then its class can still tell.

History is also on the Europeans’ side — including a 2-0 win, in the same Maracana stadium, when the teams first met back at the 1950 World Cup. A similar result on Wednesday afternoon and Spain’s World Cup campaign is back on track. Anything else and the reigning champions’ hopes of retaining the title are done for.