Sunday, November 13, 2011

England 1; Spain 0.

I watched the friendly international between England and Spain at Wembley last evening. Spain are European and World champions and ranked number 1 in the world. England are ranked number 7. In addition Barcelona have won the Champion's League for three seasons out of four. The Spain team is made up of mainly Barcelona and Real Madrid players.

These were the teams:

England (4-5-1): Hart; G Johnson, Jagielka, Lescott, Cole; Walcott (Downing, h-t), Jones (Rodwell, 56), Parker (Walker, 85), Lampard (Barry, 56), Milner (A Johnson, 76); Bent (Welbeck, 63).

Spain (4-3-3): Casillas (Reina, h-t); Arbeloa, Ramos (Puyol, 74), Pique, Alba; Busquets (Torres, 64), Xavi (Fabregas, h-t), Alonso; Silva (Mata, h-t), Villa, Iniesta (Cazorla, 74).

This was a full strength Spain team, while England were missing Wayne Rooney, John Terry, Stephen Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Young from their first choice XI. Talking about eleven, the week of preparation had been spoiled for England by FIFA;s refusal to allow England to wear a poppy on their shirts for Armistice weekend. This was the first Armistice day when all the warriors from the first world war were dead and it had special importance for England. The poppy is not a commercial, political or religious symbol; just a way of remembering those who had sacrificed their lives in war so that we could be free. It was suggested by FIFA that it would offend the Germans. The Germans said that they had not been consulted and would not anyway have been offended. This was a case of the usual maladroitness by FIFA.

There are two ways to play against Spain/Barcelona. You must either go all out in open play to score more goals than they can - Manchester United tried that against Barcelona in the Champion's League Final last year and lost 3-1, or you must defend deeply and play 9 behind the ball in your own half. That way the best you can hope for is a dull game and, a 0-0 score if you are lucky. Spain plays an intricate, one-touch passing game, aiming to thread their passes between the back line of defenders so that a running mid-fielder can tuck the ball round the goal-keeper.

In the event Capello had England play the Italian way with two ranks of defenders. Spain had 22 attacks on the England goal while England attacked the Spanish goal only twice. However, only two of the Spanish attacks were on target, while both the English attacks were on target. The result was that England won 1-0. The goal came from a long England clearance out of defence which Spain broke up with a cynical foul. From the resulting free-kick James Milner sent a high ball deep into the Spain penalty area where England's lone striker met it with his head and knocked it against the goal post. Rebounds off goal posts are unpredictable and this one ran at head height along the goal line from where the England captain, Frank Lampard scored with his nose.

England defended sturdily for the rest of the second half and ran out winners. Although Spain has lost friendly matches before, there is no doubt that they were trying to win this one with their first team out and a range of top flight substitutes. England started with youngsters in the team and brought in youngsters as substitutes. Undoubtedly England benefited by their centre half pairing of Jagielka and Lescott. These two were together at Everton, a team notoriously difficult to score against. They also had Scott Parker in the Claude Makelele role as stopper in front of the centre halves. Parker, now 32, has grown into this role over years at Chelsea and West Ham and now at Spurs has perfected it. Makelele continued to play this part until he was 38.

I must also comment on the different ways that English and European referees interpret the rules. Tackling from behind is an art, but it is possible to hook your foot around a player who is shielding the ball and dispossess him. Such tackles are seen every week and applauded in the English Premier League. On the continent they are immediately given as a foul and usually red or yellow carded. on the other hand, in a siege situation such as we saw yesterday, one way of relieving it is, is for a very quick player to sprint out of defence with the ball. Defenders on the Continent tend to be rather slower and their one defence against this is to impede the attacker unfairly either by tripping, a late tackle or a body check. This was exactly the tactic that Barcelona employed against Chelsea in the Champion's League semi-final a couple of years ago. In England such a body-check would merit a yellow card, since we like to see counter-attacking. In Europe it is often not even punished. Yesterday Sergio Ramos was guilty of two such body-checks which would have earned him a red card had the referee been British.

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