World Cup Qualifiers: Spain's future is in Manchester

World Cup Qualifiers: Spain's future is in Manchester




(Jordi Alba 19, Alvaro Negredo 86)

For all the incessant talk of tiki-taka, Spain flattered to deceive until two men from Manchester intervened.

The world champions' second goal, scored by Alvaro Negredo and set up by Jesus Navas, added a welcome gloss to an otherwise flat performance on Saturday morning.

Until their 86th minute combination calmed nerves and confirmed the three points in Finland, Vicente del Bosque's men were plagued by a perennial problem.

All play and no work makes the Spanish dull boys.

Possession without penetration can get repetitive without a satis­factory climax. At times, a Spanish World Cup qualifier can be like watching The 40-year-Old Virgin.

Of course, such criticism seems disingenuous, perhaps even ungrateful.

The world and European champions reached a higher plane of consistency and quality long ago; achieving a balletic beauty not witnessed since the Samba boys and the Dutch total footballers of the 1970s.

But the Dutch, and particularly the Brazilians, killed teams. The Spanish toy with opponents like a cat pawing at a ball of wool.

They are victims of their own unprecedented success. Welcome mats are seldom laid out in front of penalty boxes when Del Bosque's men come to visit.

Finland rarely ventured forward, and always kept a back-five. But there were still more cracks than the Berlin Wall on the night East and West Germans attacked their oppressive symbol with pickaxes.

Joona Toivio was cut to ribbons by the incisive running of Jordi Alba, particularly on the Spanish fullback's finely taken opening goal, and Kari Arkivou fared just as poorly on the other side.

There was much fun to be had with the Finns, but the Spanish opted to play with a straight face.

Spain started against a wobbly Finnish defence without a recognised striker as Cesc Fabregas was handed false No. 9 duties once more.

The midfielder has been in fine form for Barcelona of late. His assists are piling up and he added another for his country with a delightful chipped pass over that five-men wall to release Alba.

But he drifted away from the game, pushed out to the periphery while his teammates played ping pong around the centre circle. As his fellow midfielders swapped boots for paddles, Fabregas was isolated and finally sacrificed in the second-half for Negredo.

Similarly, an angry David Villa was replaced by Navas. Spain's leading goal-scorer made no attempt to conceal his frustration at being shoved out to a supporting role on the left-wing.

His involvement was minimal; his impact negligible.

With Villa out wide, Fabregas in a false striking role and Negredo and Roberto Soldado on the bench, del Bosque played the percentages once more.

Their Group I qualification has yet to be confirmed - though it should be a formality now with two home games left to play - and the three points were undoubtedly the priority. Still, there is a growing sense that the tiki-taka system is not without its flaws.

The unexpected home draw against Finland in March was followed by a one-sided humiliation against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final.

The midfield masters still have a striking concern to ponder.

Former La Liga manager Manuel Pellegrini might have found a solution.

Navas' late dart down the right flank, springing the offside trap to find the galloping Negredo, was a goal scored in Helsinki but made in Manchester.

Pellegrini was told when he took the Manchester City job that a Plan B was required.

Roberto Mancini had overly relied upon a top-heavy midfield of diminutive artists, happy to wait for them to do something cute to carve out a pathway to goal. Sound familiar?

Pellegrini is also content to use that model but he has also promoted his back-up plan; stretch the play wide through Navas and utilise the aerial threat of both Edin Dzeko and Negredo.

It's food for thought for Del Bosque.

When Navas and Negredo entered the fray, Finland suddenly looked vulnerable. They retreated. They dithered. They made mistakes.

For the first time, the true balance of power was restored to the contest. It was men against boys.

When the World Cup comes around, Spain will only face men; men more willing to take a parang to the pretty stuff in central midfield and shove a time-bomb under the tika-taka.

Del Bosque will need another option beyond the aesthetic - but ageing - attacking axis of Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Villa.

Fortunately, the men from Manchester are working on an alternative masterplan.

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