18 June 2008

Spain 2-1 Greece

Sergio Garcia-De la Red-Fabregas-Iniesta

Charisteas 42’
De la Red 61’
Guiza 88’

With 10 new faces in the line-up (including 3 Liverpool starters), it was always going to be a tighter game for the Furia Roja. And with nothing left to lose in the competition, going out at the group stage despite being the holders, Greece was willing to attack, although still as difficult to break down as always.

Not only was Xabi Alonso the captain of this revamped line-up, he was also the focal point. Today we saw Alonso near his best, setting the tempo in a deep-lying role, pinging both long and short passes, and nearly scoring from his own half (as he did against both Luton and Newcastle) in the 24th minute, only to see his shot go inches wide.

Even though the game was more lively than you’d expect, with Greece headed out and Spain playing the second string, there were still few opportunities for either side, with Alonso’s long range effort probably the best of the lot.

But in the 42nd minute, the Greece from Euro 2004 reappeared. Having picked up a number of free kicks throughout the half, they finally took advantage of one from the left flank, with Karagounis curling in a ball for Charisteas to head home. It looked like Arbeloa lost his man, although the fact that he didn’t even make the run with Charisteas makes me question who was supposed to mark him. Either way, it was another moment of shaky defending for the Spanish, and they paid for it. There was little Reina could do about it.

The second half saw much of the same, with Alonso still creating Spain’s best chances, most notably with a shot from distance that crashed off the inside of the far post in the 54th. But soon after, Guiza’s skillfully knocked down a long ball into the path of De la Red, who make no mistake with an unstoppable shot from just inside the box. Nikopolidis got a hand to it, but there was no way it was staying out.

It looked likely to end level, which wouldn’t have been an unfair result, but Spain’s increasing pressure finally paid off in the 88th minute when Guiza, who had struggled as a lone striker, got away from his marker to head in an inch-perfect Garcia cross.

Once again, Spain had problems breaking down a packed defense, and Greece is one of the best at getting bodies in front of attackers and closing down the space in the final third of the pitch. Like against Sweden, Spain were too intricate at times, and moves would break down when they approached the Greek goal. One moment stood out when Guiza and Fabregas linked up well on Garcia’s long ball, but it was one pass too many when Fabregas touched it back to Guiza instead of shooting, and nothing came of it. In addition, Dani Guiza is certainly no Torres or Villa, and Spain weren't getting anywhere near enough from the lone striker; they've looked far, far better playing two up top.

But like against Sweden, they held on in the end, and came up winners thanks to taking the game to their opponents for the full 90 minutes and getting a late goal. And surprise, surprise, it came from the player I thought did the least for his chances. Even though Sweden has been better than the Greeks (despite Sweden’s capitulation to Russia today), it’s arguably more impressive today as Spain came back from a goal down and were playing the B-team.

But now the fun starts. No matter how disappointing the Italians were in the group stage, I’m sure they're a team Spain wanted to avoid in the quarter-finals. This tournament is spookily shaping up like the last World Cup: Spain was outstanding in the first game and the best side in their group, only to be matched up with an experienced, if underperforming, big side in the knock-out round. Let’s hope history doesn’t continue to repeat itself.

But to conclude I want to go back to Alonso, who was arguably today’s man of the match, as this is still a Liverpool blog. Today re-raised all the questions that have surfaced because of the supposed Barry for Alonso switch. When Alonso plays like he did today, he looks like he could go straight into any side in the world (he was probably the only player today who forced himself into contention against Italy, and I think he should be starting ahead of Senna, especially with the way the Italians have been playing). He sets the tempo for the entire team and can seemingly complete any pass (if given the time and space to do so).

But he’s been showing less and less of that for Liverpool this season. I’m well aware his injury played a huge part in that, but even after returning to fitness, the first leg against Chelsea was the only match where he truly excelled. And given Liverpool's problems in the league, I completely understand purchasing players with an eye on the Premiership. Alonso rarely, especially after the damage he did in his first season, gets that time and space he needs in England.

I will be devastated to lose Xabi. He is one of my favorites, and I’ve got a lot of time for players who know how to control the tempo and have that range of passing. But I’ve got even more faith in Rafa Benitez. If Benitez feels like Barry, who can link up excellently with Gerrard, is better on set plays, and has an excellent passing sense of his own, is a player than can improve Liverpool in England, so be it. Benitez is renowned for collecting central midfielders (he’s purchased Alonso, Sissoko, Mascherano, Lucas, and Plessis), and knows exactly what he wants out of the position. Plus, the relationship between Alonso and Benitez has always seemed close, so if Benitez is ready ship the player out, he has to feel secure with the decision.

But today’s game showed exactly why I’ll always follow the career of Xabi Alonso, no matter where he plays.

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