Swiss show world how to beat Spain

BY Jamie Trecker • June 16, 2010

It might be the game that saved the World Cup.

After six days of mediocre play, the excitement and the cruelty of World Cup football was shown at the feet of the most unlikely of all teams.

This is not a joke, and not a mistake: tiny Switzerland beat the team that many had picked to win it all, sending Spain to a famous, shattering 1-0 defeat.

In today’s opener at Nelspruit, Chile ran riot on Honduras in the opener but could only score once, ultimately winning out 1-0. Jean Beausejour’s lone goal, and that one a scrappy finish, was enough to give the South Americans a deserved win.

But the game everyone will be talking about tonight took place in Durban, where a heavily favored Spain was picked to handle Switzerland with ease. As we saw last night when Brazil struggled to topple North Korea, things are clearly not going to plan for the big powers.

Ottmar Hitzfeld’s charges had never beaten Spain in a long history dating back to 1925. In 1994, the Swiss had been chucked out of the World Cup at Spanish hands 3-0. And with a roster of relative unknowns against the glittering likes of David Villa, Fernando Torres and Iker Casillas, this one was expected to be a walk in the park for the European champions.

But as previous Euro champs have learned, the World Cup can be different.

Spain’s loss meant that you have to go back to 1998 for the last time a reigning Euro champ won its World Cup opener. Germany beat the United States in Paris after winning Euro 1996. Since then, France (2000 winners) crashed to Senegal on opening night in Seoul, Greece (2004 winners) failed to even reach World Cup 2006 and tonight the 2008 Euro Champs turned into pumpkins, too.

St. Ettiene’s Gelson Fernandes buried the Spanish this afternoon with a wild goal that is difficult to fully describe, as it seemed to belong more to the game of pinball than football.

The Swiss managed to flick a long ball on to lone runner Eren Derdiyok, who headed it on to recent Seattle signing Blaise Nkufo. Nkufo’s return ball bounced off Derdiyok’s knee, bouncing in between Casillas and Gerard Pique. Casillas and Derdiyok clattered into a heap, whereupon Pique tumbled over them. The ball squibbed through, bounced off the Barcelona defender’s hands, leaving an agrressive tap-in for Fernandes.

It was a stunning turn of events, equal parts crafty counterattack and dreadful defense by a Spanish side that until that point had had all of the ball, all of the time.

But you need ideas with possession, and today, the Spanish were bereft of them. Against a Swiss team that played long stretches not to lose — classic negative football — the Spanish continued to try the same play over and over again, no matter that it didn’t work.

Until the introduction of Jesus Navas and Torres in the second half, Spain had neither the speed nor the necessary width, and kept banging the ball into the Swiss box where six defenders met every attempt. And even then, Spain failed to heed the advice of either Germany or Brazil, and use quick, long passes to cut away Switzerland’s zone defense.

Give credit to Auxerre’s Stephane Grichting, arguably the man of the match alongside the very solid 'keeper Diego Benaglio. Grichting, given almost full responsibilty in the middle after the early removal of counterpart Philippe Senderos (ankle) was on every man, and every ball, in what must be the game of his life.

Clearly, the Swiss had paid attention to the last time the Spanish lost a match: That game of course was a famous 2-0 American win at the Confederations Cup. Then, the USA used the same smothering tactics, and capitalized on Spanish defensive errors. The Yanks revealed the Spaniards as a mentally fragile side without a backup plan, one that could be beaten as long as your defenders stayed on their feet and didn’t overcommit.

Back then, the Spanish brushed that loss off as inconsequential, noting that it came in a meaningless tournament.

Today’s loss will be harder to explain away.

In Nelspruit, once more, a dominant performance on the field didn’t translate into goals. On the balance of play, Marcelo Bielsa must be wondering why his team couldn’t bring the hammer down.

But the Chileans will be happy with the three points and their first World Cup win since 1962.

Jorge Valdivia and wingback Mauricio Isla insistently tested Noel Valladares’s net as the Chileans controlled almost the entire field of play from the kickoff. The Honduran corps of Carlos Pavon and Amado Guevara were made to look very old indeed by a Chilean midfield that seemed able to pass and probe at will, and were rarely troubled even after the introduction of Georgie Welcome.

With David Suazo out injured — manager Reinaldo Rueda banished to the stands, serving a touchline ban, Honduras had neither the men or the answers this afternoon.

With today’s results, Chile and Switzerland share the lead of Group H, while Honduras and Spain are left to regroup in the cellar.

Later in the day, South Africa got closer to making the wrong sort of World Cup history.

The Bafana Bafana were soundly beaten at Loftus Versfeld Stadium 3-0 by Uruguay in Wednesday’s nightcap, and are now in real danger of becoming the first host nation to fail to progress out of the group stages.

Led by man of the match Diego Forlan, Uruguay was all-smothering, controlling the field, the possession, and the run of play. Forlan set the pace for the game with one of the best goals to date, a 30-yard drive that deflected off the unfortunate head of Aaron Mokoena, to dip just under the crossbar in the 24th minute. Uruguay never looked back.

Forlan doubled his total from the spot after Itumeleng Khune felled Luis Suarez in the area with 10 minutes to play. Ref Massimo Busacca immediately showed red to Khune, reducing the hosts to 10 men, and ensuring that they will be without their first-choice netminder for what is now a must-win final group game against France. He joins Kagiso Dikgacoi on the suspension list as the Fulham midfielder picked up his second caution of the tournament and must now sit out.

To add insult to injury, Alvaro Pereira added a third for Uruguay deep into stoppage time, this also created by Forlan, who sent a fine corner to Suarez, who nonchalantly chipped it over backup backstop Moeneeb Josephs.

Uruguay sits tonight on top of Group A ahead of tomorrow’s France-Mexico game on four points. South Africa has but one point to its name.
 

TOMORROW

Our day starts with Argentina vs South Korea at Johannesburg (730am EDT), followed by Greece - Nigeria at Bloemfontein. The nightcap is a biggie: France vs Mexico (230pm EDT) from Polokwane

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Greece - Nigeria doesn’t promise much. The Greeks are slow and can’t score while Nigeria look very disorganized. Perhaps check in to see if the Africans can revive their fortunes.

On paper, the early game looks like a mismatch. But as Greece and Brazil discovered, you underestimate the Korean teams at your peril. Argentina looked brilliant in their opener but were unable to convert dominance into goals. We could find out a lot about both teams in this one, and we expect to see brilliance and resilience on both sides.

France vs Mexico is the other game to watch. The Mexicans have a real chance at this Cup, and taking the scalp of a wobbly French side would do wonders for their confidence. France needs a big game out of someone -- anyone, really at this point -- after a horrible 0-0 slog against Uruguay in their opener. You suspect that a loss here will destroy what looks to be a very fragile French side, and all the pressure is on them.


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