It is expected that the World and European Champions, Spain, will be too much for Ireland; especially considering the ease with which Croatia disposed of them in their opening contest of Group C. The Irish succumbed to a 3-1 defeat. Spain, whilst approaching this summer’s tournament with a level of tactical unorthodox, performed well against Italy in their 1-1 draw.
This game promised to serve up a feast of attack versus defence and Ireland’s first performance of Euro 2012 not only suggested so, but did so with ominous potential for a heavy defeat. An inability to create width through the fullbacks, a requisite feature of this tournament, had cost Ireland dearly in the first game. Stephen Ward and John O’Shea characterised the poor distribution that was served out from the back, and in the first half just a third of Ireland’s long ball attempts had pulled off, from an attempted 36. Richard Dunne, alone, had contributed to that total with 8 clearances: just one short of Croatia’s combined total.
Fabregas: at the national team I have more freedom to move up front
The danger men of the respective sides were David Silva and Damien Duff. Before tonight’s tie, Spain’s goal scorer against Italy, Cesc Fabregas, had stated that, “at the national team, Andres [Iniesta], Silva and I have more freedom to move up front, while at Barça, wingers need to keep the pitch wide.” With Arbeloa and Jordi Alba providing the width from the back, the attacking midfield trio have been given the freedom to hunt for goals. Whilst Fabregas did so, Silva provided and he will be the man Ireland will need to watch. Against Italy, Silva had a pass accuracy of 96%. Conversely, Duff made two more key passes for Ireland, 5, than Silva did for Spain.
The one surprise going into the game came from Spain: unsurprisingly they chose to play against Ireland with a striker, Fernando Torres, the shock came with who they dropped – their scorer, Cesc Fabregas. Although the first shot of the game fell to Simon Cox of Ireland, the decision was justified within 4 minutes. Spain’s first attack came early and with Silva on the edge of the box the outcome was predictable. Torres picked up the ball from his compatriot, accelerated past Ward to the right and struck the ball high on the run into the roof of the net, with the ball sailing in between Shay Given’s outstretched arms. Torres’ celebration said it all: a cupped hand to his ear. The fluidity of the goal was characteristic of the opening ten minutes. Ireland were drowning under it and looked to be the first team out of the tournament.
When it rains, which it has only done this tournament when Ireland play, it pours and the Irish looked likely to be washed away. The Spanish were playing with their typical tiki-taka football and were moving up the pitch in segments, happy to pass back knowing Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso were capable of giving it back. Silva was the expected player of the final ball and their patience was frustrating for Ireland. When they did get a hold of the play, Spain lifted their energies: in possession the Spaniards were slow, or as they’d prefer controlled; out of possession they were hurried, eager to get the ball back. The problem was Ireland were too deep, so as soon as they did win the ball back, Spain had at least nine men behind it.
After a good closing stage against Italy, Torres had carried his efforts into the start of this game and was looking to build on his early goal. In and around the box he looked dangerous, but with Spain building up slowly and Torres suited to running at or behind his man, it was a case of patience for the Chelsea striker. When he did get the ball, though, he was unselfish in his play: often with his back to goal, he happily looked to bring others into the action, particularly with cross field passes to bring in the left and right backs, Jordi Alba and Arbeloa. But perhaps even more selfless was Andres Iniesta, formerly Spain’s unsung man before his World Cup heroics, but slipping back into the role doing much of the unseen work tonight.
With 33 minutes gone, Ireland were yet to make 100 passes. Spain, on the other hand, had made almost three times as many with 258 registered. Yet, for all their possession, they only had one goal to show for it and it wasn’t as if they had truly tested Given since. Although there were some speculative efforts, most were fairly central. 4 minutes later, though, Spain had already surpassed England’s 90 minute total against France. They continued in the same vein until half-time and carried their 1-0 lead into the break. It seemed almost excessive: it would only take a slip up for Ireland to draw level. That didn’t look likely, mind.
Ireland started the second half much like they did in the first – five minutes late. As Spain came down the left flank, Torres received the ball in the box, had time to put it on to his right foot and proceeded to curl one goal-bound. It was a a well-struck shot, but with little deviation, yet Given chose punch rather than pluck out the air. He was made to pay the price: his parry fell to the feet of Silva who controlled closely, feinted right and shifted the ball onto his favoured left foot, before passing it into the bottom left corner of the goal, past the three Irish defenders that stood between him and Given and past Given’s outstretched arm. Ireland could pack their bags now: Spain weren’t losing this.
Shortly after the lead had been doubled, Barcelona midfielder Xavi had the chance to extend it further, but his close range drive was magnificently saved by the Aston Villa ‘keeper, who was otherwise having a woeful tournament. The lines were cleared, Ireland stepped up and immediately were pushed back by the next wave of Spanish attack.
Spain, like they had all game, proceeded to dominate the next 20 minutes, at which point Xabi Alonso was replaced with Javi Martinez and Ireland began a brief fragmented spell of possession. It provided a flurry of chances in succession for Trapattoni’s men, but as Jonathan Walters rose for a header and was easily dealt with by Iker Casillas under the downpour of rainfall, a moment of clarity struck MayCauseOffence in the face viciously - Stoke are never going to beat Barcelona in a rainy midweek game.
That groundbreaking hypothesis, which will have to be distributed to any remaining fans that still apply such caveman logic, was strengthened moments later when Duff was caught in possession on the halfway line by Silva, who released Torres with a through ball to send him one-on-one with Given. The Spaniard made no mistake, curling his shot to the right of the ‘keeper and seeing the ball nestle in the back of the net. 3-0 Spain.
El Nino, as the now-28 year old was once known, was not going to get his chance to score a hat-trick, though, as Del Bosque rang his second change of the match, replacing the striker with the man whose place he took in the starting line-up – Cesc Fabregas. It was shortly followed by Spain’s third and final substitute: Santi Cazorla replaced Andres Iniesta, who had registered an 87% pass completion rate in his 80 minutes on the pitch.
Spain saw the game out professionally, continuing to pass the ball around effortlessly, something they did a whopping 859 times throughout the course of the game, setting a new European Championship record. Robbie Keane did his best to claw one back for the Irish, forcing a good save out of Iker Casillas down to his left, but Spain had the last say. David Silva took a quick throw-in to Cesc Fabregas, who turned unopposed in the box and drilled a thunderous effort home from an acute angle to give the Spaniards a well-deserved 4-0 lead. Silva now has 4 assists and 1 goal in two games. When Spain score, he is involved.
Ireland are the first team to exit this year’s Euros, however they still have a part to play in the competition with the remaining three teams all yet to qualify from the group. They face Italy, who are hopeless if Croatia avoid defeat and they fail to win, but have every chance of qualifying if they pick up all three points against Ireland. Group C is far from over.
Man of the Match – David Silva