WORLD CUP JUNE 16, 2010
The tournament came alive today. Three games and each of them excellent. Chile are fast becoming everyone's second-favourite team and not just because Marcelo Bielsa is superbly bonkers. They play with verve and ambition and good luck to them.
Later, against an admittedly poor South Africa, Uruguay were very good. Again, virtue - in the sense of attacking football - was rewarded. Forlan and Suarez ran rings around the poor hosts and, whisper it, a quarter-final place for Uruguay is far from inconceivable. (And since Lugano and Suarez are in my Fantasy World Cup squad, let's hope it happens.)
Best of all, however, was Spain vs Switzerland. In one sense, given Spain's record in their last 50 matches, this really was a surprise result. But this is still football so it shouldn't be considered a shock. Remember that Scotland beat France home and away during Euro 2008 qualifying)
Ottmar Hitzfeld knows what he has and what he's doing. Well-organised, resolute, calm and, yes, lucky, the Swiss deserved a draw at least. They needed some luck to get even that and their goal was a glorious shambles but it's hard to say that a side playing with such endeavour didn't get exactly what they merited.
And this is one of football's charms: the better side, especially in cup football, doesn't always prevail. Hitzfeld was happy to concede the flanks to Spain, knowing that neither Capdevila nor Ramos had a target at which to aim their crosses and, anyway, it was more important to clutter the midfield and make life difficult for Xavi and Iniesta.
Spain's difficulty was, as Sid Lowe points out- the lack of a Plan B. Plan A wasn't far from working and remained a pretty thing to watch, but Switzerland played so deep, and parked two midfielders in front of the back four at all times, that all the space and air was squeezed from the Spanish team.
What they desperately needed, but weren't able to do, was a midfielder making the kind of late run to take him beyond the front-man or, alternatively, receive a cut-back from either full-back. What Spain needed today, then, was a Lothar Matthaus or some such player. (Which isn't to say that they will need such a player tomorrow or next week; they remain a terrific side.)
Still, this hardly means Spain are done for yet. Switzerland showed how an inferior side can survive against Spain, but as the tournament progresses the risk-reward balance for that kind of approach changes and tilts more towards risk. And anyway, it takes discipline and humility to play like this. The later in the tournament you are, the less humble the opposition since, understandably, they think they can play a bit too. In that respect, Spain may find life more comfortable against better sides than Switzerland.