England 1:0 Spain
Wembley Stadium, London
Wembley was full, sold on the dream of the king's touch, as the world's No.1 soccer nation Spain dropped by for an evening.
A strange pre-match atmosphere, as the usual patriotic fantasy rang increasingly hollow: No-one expected England to win and most were hoping for a defeat short of embarrassing.
A 90,000 defending army expected its fortress to be breached, and that it would only be a matter of when, not if the Spanish Armada would get revenge for 1588.
They had their full team out: Xavi, Iniesta and David Villa were facing Phil Jones, Joleon Lescott and Danny Welbeck - ouch!
In the first five minutes the red sea washed over Wembley as expected, Spain marinating possession and donning the mantle of the home side as they took their game confidently to their raw hosts. England were second best, pinned back in their own half, unable to string multiple passes together or create moments of danger. This was no ordinary home game.
Spain enjoyed the (three) lions' share of of the ball and out-shot England 21 to 3 overall, but never showed real 'animo' until they chased an equalizer in the final quarter, instead stroking the ball around as gently as crown green bowls. It was a lesson for the land of macho power-play from a visiting maestro. Simple yet brilliant: Play it to feet and flick it quickly when danger nears but never lose possession.
Yet Fabio Capello's team still merited their win for holding firm having stolen the lead against the run of play. Scott Parker's astute anchoring and his last-ditch lunges saved the day more than once, while the lone strike was a goal made in England. James Milner muscled away on the left and won a free-kick. He looped his set piece into the melée and Darren Bent soared highest to nod the ball against the post.
Enter the wily old head of Frank Lampard, increasingly tipped to lose his place as he drew level with Bryan Robson on 90 caps, as the only one following up as an open goal gaped. England wanted it more and were hungry for the scalp of FIFA's No.1-ranked nation. Their defence held firm and withstood the Spanish onslaught; job done.
Yet Spain were clearly a class apart and England fans left buoyant but slightly subdued, knowing a narrow win had probably flattered the hosts. Even the loudest loudmouths at Wembley began hollering at England to pass and keep the ball down after a few minutes of watching la furia roja hold sway with effortless élan.
The fruits of tiki-taka are still ripe, a playing system streets ahead of any other in 2011.
England and other nations play in a linear fashion, hitting front men with crosses or runners in channels or working the ball upfield with diagonal passes or dribbles. Spain eschew the 'droit au but' approach and prefer to keep possession, spinning a spider's web of flicks and passing triangles which send ball-watchers' heads spinning as the play changes direction with every pass.
Only late in the game with the introduction of Fernando Torres to supplement Cesc Fabregas did Spain attack in a more 'vertical' way.
Tiki-taka is maddeningly predictable yet unplayable at the same time, a winning formula that has bagged the European Championship and World Cup in an unprecedented golden age for a hitherto jinxed giant.
Spain are not all-conquering however and have already been beaten five times since 2008 as it happens, twice competitively - the USA beat them 2-0 at 2009's Confederations Cup and Switzerland edged them 1-0 at last year's World Cup. Make that six losses for the champions now. Friendly defeats have come in Italy (2-1) this summer, and in Portugal (4-0) and Argentina (4-1) last year.
It is as if in away friendlies the Spaniards take their feet off the gas and use them for practice and make sure they do not lose when it really matters, while the home teams are eager to beat the World Champions.
The US beat Spain in 2009 through conceding the wings and forming two solid banks of four to frustrate their close-passing through the middle, leaving American speedsters Landon Donovan and Charlie Davies to chase balls over midfield and stop the Spanish full-backs overlapping. Like England at Wembley, Switzerland grabbed a goal and kept a tight ship to frustrate the more talented Spaniards and hold out for a close win. Spain are beatable.
Being reigning European and World champions can become a millstone - everyone wants to say they beat you so they raise their game accordingly. As Spain manager Vicente del Bosque confirms,
"Anything except winning will be seen as a disaster and that doesn't help us at all."
For England, there was little to get excited about, but some green shoots showing promise: Danny Welbeck and Jack Rodwell impressed, Phil Jones fought manfully out of position, while man of the match Scott Parker proved why he should have gone to South Africa.
England remain an underachiever on the competitive stage but had beaten three World Cup holders at Wembley before Saturday: West Germany were dispatched 3-1 in 1954 and 2-0 in 1974, while Argentina with a teenage Diego Maradona succumbed 3-1 under the twin towers in 1978.
Beating the mighty Spain in 2011 in a friendly will not count for much in the long run, though a win is a win is a win.
Euro 2012 will be a whole different ball game.
ENG: Hart, G.Johnson, Lescott, Jagielka, Cole, Walcott (Downing 46'), Jones (Rodwell 56'), Parker (Walker 85'), Milner (A.Johnson 76'), Lampard (Barry 56'), Bent (Wellbeck) 63'.
SPA: Casillas (Reina 46'), Arbeloa, Pique, Ramos (Puyol 74'), Alba, Busquets (Torres 64'), Alonso, Xavi (Fabregas 46'), Iniesta (Cazorla 74'), Silva (Mata 46'), Villa.
Goal: Lampard 49'.
(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile
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