All the talk, or as much as my limited Spanish could gather, pre game was about the viability of two possible partnerships. The Spanish press seemed to be clamouring for David Villa to partner Fernando Torres, but thought he wouldn’t. Whereas it was assumed Cesc would be dropped, as he was incompatible with Xavi.
By all accounts Andres Iniesta has had a fine season, made all the more impressive by the general malaise that accompanied it at Barca. Whenever I have seen him though, he hasn’t been otherworldly impressive, such is the level needed to keep our own boy-wonder on the bench. The combination of Xavi in Cesc in midfield really does look to good to keep separate for to long. Aragones has been here before, at the last world cup, where Cesc was forced to start from the bench but forced his way into the starting line up with a fabulous cameo in the first game. Maybe this tournaments version was not quite so impressive, nor the Spanish performance as glorious as the hype it is producing, but both gave the impression of a long term storyline.
The game itself actually started rather flat, with the first 15 minutes a scrappy affair. However on the quarter hour a good Russian passing move sparked the Spanish into life. This was one of many ominous features of Spain’s play, the ability to increase the quality of their play at will in response to Russian pressure. On 20 minutes Torres broke down the channel, beat his defender for pace, desire and skill, and then squared to Villa for the easiest of finishes. After this the rest of the half was monopolised by quick, aesthetically pleasing and technically superb Spanish passing.
The Russians regained some composure and momentum in the last 5 minutes of the half, hitting the crossbar, from a fabulous volleyed shot, on 42 minutes. Within a minute Villa had made it 2-0, a counter attacking goal, he was slipped in by Iniesta, before firing through the keeper’s legs. The two first half goals summed up what had made the Spanish front pair so dangerous all half: Torres running beyond defenders with graceful determination whenever space was left in behind, Villa perpetual motion and quick darting runs of the defenders whenever they sat deep.
The first noteworthy incident, according to my notepad, of the second half was Cesc coming on for Torres on 53 minutes. The match picked up as the Russians displayed great spirit and continued to chase the two goal deficit, although clearly hampered by the absence of their star man and creative influence Arsharvin. Villa missed a good chance for his hat-trick and Cesc should have been put clean through on goal, but the pass was poor. Then on 72 Villa did score his third, put through by the sweetest of balls from Fabregas. In fairness up to this point Cesc had not really influenced the game greatly, being played further forward than one would normally expect, almost off the striker. Russia did pull a goal back on 86 minutes and missed badly a minute from time, although this only sparked Spain into life again. As time expired Cesc nodded home after the keeper had saved well. A simple finish, and although he looked offside when the shot was hit, it will give the coach a selection headache.
There were moments toward the end of the second half where the Spanish passing was genuinely breathtaking, even for an Arsenal fan. Quite rightly the hype will build now around this side and they must be considered amongst the favourites after such a graceful display. However, the Russians did give them a game, hit the woodwork twice – once at 1-0 which could have changed the match – and were missing their best player, without whom they struggled for invention or genuine talent upfront. I still have a sneaking feeling that for all their undoubted quality, the small and technically gifted Spaniards might find life difficult against a more experienced, athletic and better defensive team who have talent upfront to expose a backline that looked to be suspect. Although with Villa and Torres on such form…This should be a good tournament.
I think Cesc will be a starter by the end of the group stage. Iniesta has a lot of qualities, but is not as influential as our man. In particular, neither he nor Xavi seemed to offer the range of passing that Cesc does, and this could be crucial, with Torres ever willing to run beyond the defence when they push up. Overall, this was a really superb game of football, and along with the Dutch is the display of the tournament so far. At times the Spanish passing was on a level beyond anything else seen so far, reminiscent of Argentina against Serbia at the last world cup. From here on out it will be down the local tapas bar with my adopted countrymen, I just hope Cesc gets a full game, he is too good and too pretty to leave out.