t is hardly a coincidence. Spain’s spectacular success between 2008 and 2012 runs concurrently with the heady heights of Pep Guardiola’s brilliant Barcelona. So perhaps it should come as little surprise that, as the Catalan club have fallen into decline of late, so too have La Roja.
Friday’s shocking 5-1 defeat to Netherlands in Salvador was reminiscent of Barca’s 4-0 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League last season. Nobody had seen it coming – not then and not now.
There is no scapegoating of the Barca contingent taking place; many of Spain’s stars were at fault. Sergio Ramos was well beaten for pace by Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben and proved to be some distance from the fine form he has shown for Real Madrid in recent months, Iker Casillas was at fault for one and perhaps two of the goals, Xabi Alonso careless in possession, David Silva guilty of a crucial miss and Fernando Torres wasteful after coming off the bench.
The spine of this team, however, still belongs to Barca. Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba both started in defence, with Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta in midfield. Later, Pedro and Cesc Fabregas (who moves to Chelsea at the end of this month) came off the bench. And of the seven, only Iniesta emerged with any real credit.
What a difference four years make. Spain’s last two World Cup games have now come against the Netherlands, In 2010, Iniesta inspired a wonderful win with his extra-time clincher, but Friday’s fiasco could not have been farther removed from the glory of South Africa – and Vicente del Bosque’s side now face a fight to even make it through what is a difficult group. As in 2010, when they lost to Switzerland, Chile are the major obstacle.
Back then, however, Spain’s opening defeat had looked like a freak result and subsequent successes proved that to be the case. This time, there is a very different feeling.
Pique was particularly poor. The 27-year-old played Van Persie onside for the first Dutch goal and was easily beaten by Robben for the second. Alba, at left-back, is a pale shadow of the player who shone so brightly at Euro 2012, while Busquets struggled alongside Alonso in central midfield and Xavi saw the game pass him by after an albeit impressive opening period. Later, Pedro was ineffectual after coming off the bench. Fabregas flattered to deceive.
Four years ago, Busquets, Pique, Xavi et al were at the peak of their powers, while Carles Puyol was also around and producing dynamic displays for both club and country.
Spain still miss him, but they also appear to have dipped in form with the decline of Barcelona. While both Neymar and Alexis Sanchez have impressed in this World Cup, Barca’s Spain stars struggled on Friday and failed to find their brilliant best after a calamitous campaign at the Catalan club in 2013-14, which ended without a major trophy except the Spanish Supercopa claimed back in August.
Spain’s sudden slump is a culmination of many different factors, yet Friday’s false start at this World Cup has its roots at Barcelona. And ahead of the second group game against Chile on Wednesday, Del Bosque now has some difficult decisions to make.