Ramos Puyol Marchena Capdevila
Iniesta Xavi Silva
Villa 20’ 45’ 75’
Although Torres was only on the field for 54 minutes, and David Villa was truly the star of the show, today demonstrated just why so many Liverpool fans are looking for those two to recreate their partnership on Merseyside.
This is what I’d hoped to see after last week’s Spain/USA match. While you can never put too much stock in friendlies, and I’ve made it clear I haven’t seen Spain enough to have a concrete opinion, Torres was all too often isolated in a 4-1-4-1 and Spain struggled for goals despite a clear edge in possession. But with Torres and Villa paired up top, that was never an issue today.
It’s easy to get ahead of one’s self after a 4-1 win, but this isn’t the first time Spain’s started a major tournament well. They put four past the Ukraine in the first match at the 2006 World Cup and were still dumped out by France in the first knockout round. But today’s performance was still far better than last Wednesday’s display and even better than expected.
Torres and Villa combined well from the off and Spain had their usual dominance in possession, but Russia looked lively on the counter attack, which is always frightening given Spanish liabilities in defense. But an early goal can take the weight off a team, and that happened today after Villa’s first in the 20th minute.
Capdevila was able to pick out a streaking Torres with a long pass from deep in his own half to put Torres one-on-one with Kolodin (Torres tormented Kolodin throughout his time on the pitch), and the striker took advantage of the defender to get through on goal, only to cut it back for Villa to slot in an empty net.
That goal alone demonstrated how well the two strikers can link up (Torres knew exactly where his strike partner was while barely having a look up) but both made excellent runs to draw defenders throughout the first 45, freeing up space for the other. Torres usually lurked down the left channel into the center, as he often does for Liverpool, while Villa played mostly through the middle.
Russia nearly equalized in the 23rd minute when Zyrianov hit the post after a flowing move and more lackadaisical defending, but Spain took advantage of their profligacy on the stroke of halftime with another lovely counter-attacking move. Breaking out after an awful Russian corner, Capdevila found Iniesta, who put Villa in with a lovely throughball, with the striker nutmegging the keeper for his second.
With a two-goal lead, Spain began to slow down their play, and took Torres off for Fabregas nine minutes into the second half, ostensibly to protect him after he suffered an ankle knock in training last week. But the change didn’t slow Villa down much, as he continued to threaten looking for his hat-trick, while Akinfeyev prevented both Senna and Silva from tallying a third in the 67th minute.
But with 15 minutes left, Villa finally got his hat-trick. Once again, it came on the counter, with Russia stretched looking for a way back into the game. Storming up the field, Fabregas picked out Villa on the run with a perfect slide rule pass, and Villa was able to cut inside away from the defender and shoot past the keeper inside the near post.
And Liverpool fans had to enjoy Villa’s celebration, as he ran to the Spanish bench to embrace Torres. Let's hope there was an ulterior motive behind it. I’m still trying to avoid writing about Liverpool’s financial situation (as it depresses me so much), but it’s an absolute shame it looks like Liverpool would be priced out of a move for Villa, especially with Valencia seemingly willing to sell.
Russia added a consolation in the 86th through Pavlyuchenko’s header from a corner (with Capdevila losing him after a flick-on), but Fabregas got a fourth in the first minute of injury time, and surprise, surprise, it again came on the counter. Villa broke down the field and held up the ball well waiting to bring others into play, finally chipping into the box to set up Xavi. His shot was saved, but Fabregas was there for a header on the rebound, although he looked offside on the replay.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the similarities between Spain today and what Benitez is trying to build at Liverpool. All of Spain's goals came on the counter-attack and were quick strike, which is what Benitez has tried to do at Liverpool with the addition of Torres and the use of a 4-2-3-1 formation. Yet another reason to dream about getting Villa in a Liverpool shirt.
Alonso was the only other Liverpool player to see time on the pitch, coming on for Silva in the 77th minute, and playing in the holding role with Senna moving further right. Meanwhile, although I haven’t seen enough to say conclusively, Sergio Ramos didn’t impress me today. He’s excellent going forward and can certainly deliver a cross, but his defensive positioning is questionable at best (although compromised by how often he gets forward) and he commits far too many unnecessary fouls. His defending, along with the rest of Spain’s backline, which has the propensity to switch off at unfortunate moments, will have to improve if Spain is going to challenge for the trophy.
But if Spain continues to attack like they did today, they can beat any opposition in this tournament, and I’m including both Germany and the Netherlands in that despite how impressive both looked in their opening matches. Spain really was head and shoulders above an improving Russian team, albeit a team that clearly missed both Arshavin and Pogrebnyak. But we’ve seen also before that in Spain’s first match, most notably in the last World Cup.
The next match, against the Swedes, is Saturday at noon.