While Irish fans try to wipe the mauling by Spain from their memories, Tuesday’s opponents in New York still talk about the support of the Green Army in Gdansk. La Liga football writer and editor of Madrid Atléticos, Garreth Nunn gives us the view from the other side ahead of the Republic’s final match of the season against the world and European champions.
A year ago whilst Spain and Fernando Torres defeated their doubters with a hammering of Ireland, Irish fans deafened households across Europe and the world with the ‘Fields of Athenry’. Spectators and even opposition players admitted that the support the Irish team received that night was something from another world. More than one Spanish player has admitted since to being envious to the way that the Irish fans stood up and followed their team. The Spanish National Team has never had such support.
Only since 2008 have the Spanish team enjoyed the full backing from its native population. The qualification of Euro 2008 was tough, stadiums far from full and wins were greeted with chants calling for the return of Raúl. Even when they qualified, it seemed that those outside Spain believed more in La Roja’s chances than those living on the Iberian Peninsula. Things have changed now and Spain is, despite numerous media outlets trying to say to the contrary, looking solid to repeat their World Cup success. Before that they play in the Confederations Cup in Brazil but prior to that, they face Ireland. The big question is how will Vicente Del Bosque approach this tie?
The only blot on the former Real Madrid boss’s copy book as coach of Spain is the Confederations Cup. It was last played in 2009 and Del Bosque had been in the job just under a year, taking over from Euro 2008 winning Coach Luis Aragones. Aragones had turned the forever Bridesmaids into Brides and Del Bosque not only had to keep winning but, for the first time in a long time, all of Spain was interested and watching. Spain failed to win in South Africa and stories of Del Bosque’s lack of discipline surfaced. Since then he has won the World Cup and the European Championship but what has any of this got to do with Ireland, I hear you say? Well a lot because after this friendly, Spain are off to Brazil to amend the errors of 2009 and add another trophy to the already bulging shelves in Madrid. Ireland is an opportunity for some fine-tuning.
Del Bosque’s side faced Haiti on Saturday night and whilst they won 2-1, there wasn’t too much to get excited about. It was said by the Spanish media that the team failed to rise to the occasion as they faced a very weak opposition. Of course, Spain will push the fact that La Liga players only joined up with the squad this week as the league only ended last weekend and that is a valid point. So against Ireland we may see a second string side but there still remains a few positions up for grabs and it gives some players a final chance to make a claim for a starting berth in Brazil. The Spanish are expecting a tough tie and know they will need to lift their game as they face an Irish side looking for revenge after last year’s heavy defeat.
Iker Casillas has never been doubted as a natural starter but the Real Madrid ‘keeper played his first game since January last weekend after injury and having been dropped by José Mourinho. Del Bosque has said time and time again that he is the No. 1 but the player lacks match fitness and this is something Ireland will need to take advantage of. On Saturday ‘San Iker’ played only half the game but he may feature for longer this Wednesday morning.
In front of him, there are a few places in the defence that need to be sorted. It doesn’t get much better than Ramos and Pique as a central pairing but the Barca man hasn’t had the best of seasons and Raúl Albiol ended the season quite well and so gives Del Bosque something to think about. It looks possible that Albiol and Pique may start together. On the left, Jordi Alba looks like the first choice but Nacho Monreal isn’t giving up his claim, although the Arsenal man may have to watch from the bench as he played the full 90 minutes against Haiti. On the right, Alvaro Arbeloa normally gets the nod but this is Spain’s Achilles heel and the feeling is that the former Liverpool man is just filling in until someone better comes along and that someone may be Chelsea’s César Azpilicueta.
The midfield and attack is one of mystery. What will Del Bosque do here? Does he play a full strength team, maybe push Cesc up as a false number 9 again or does he play two forwards. On Saturday he only started with two La Liga players, Cesc and Navas, but he may run with Iniesta and Xavi against Ireland and also give Soldado and Pedro vital playing time. A big question hangs over the role of Javi Martinez. He’s had a fantastic season but does Del Bosque drop Busquets for the Bayern Munich star? The answer more than likely is no as the coach is loyal to the players who have served him – just ask Torres and Casillas – but it is a situation that he may have to face up to as Martinez is growing more and more as a player and continues to make his case when he gets a chance. Maybe with no Xabi Alonso, Del Bosque might even be tempted to play both at some point but he could wait until after the summer before he tries that experiment.
Mata and Silva will most likely play a part in this tie but exactly how much remains unknown. On one hand, Del Bosque knows that they are used to facing the Irish players in England and considering the British game is more physical, they know how to deal with that. On the other hand this is a good chance to settle the team and start the tactics for Brazil and so he may use Xavi and Iniesta as starters. With Ireland going over with a young and inexperienced side, he may be tempted to call on Navas to bomb down the wing and attack the defenders. As already said, it is a mystery and whatever he opts for, Ireland need to be careful.
A year ago Spain beat Ireland but the Irish were still seen as champions. On Wednesday the Boys in Green will be well supported and will have a 12th man in the stands. Spain are taking this seriously but also need to be careful so as not to pick up any injuries. It is a great opportunity for some of Ireland’s players to test themselves against the best in the world and it promises to be a great tie
Irishman Garreth Nunn is a La Liga writer based in Madrid, a contributor to several football websites and the editor of Madrid Atléticos.