From popular underachievers to feared world and two-time European champions, Spain have come an awful long way in recent years. Here are five games that proved crucial in the shaping of a side that has made winning a habit and an art form.
1. Spain 4-0 Ukraine; Group Phase; Germany 2006
Coached by Luis Aragones, Spain went into Germany 2006 as dark horses once more, having finished second to Serbia and Montenegro in qualifying and beaten Slovakia in the play-offs. Casillas, Ramos, Xavi, Puyol, Xabi Alonso, Villa and Torres all started this their opening group game, while there was no place for media darling Raul, the most senior figure in the side, bravely left on the bench by Aragones. Committed to an attacking, possession-based game, a youthful Spain turned in a scintillating performance that had the home media tipping them as champions. Appearing on Spanish TV as an analyst, Jorge Valdano was nevertheless cool in his praise, saying the players had seemed too anxious to impress.
2. Spain 1-3 France; Round of 16; Germany 2006
Involved in a tense training ground discussion with Aragones two days after the Ukraine game, Raul came off the bench to score an equaliser against Tunisia and then started the final group match against Saudi Arabia only to be subbed at half-time. He started here but that was more down to his status than on merit, a point he proved by having a terrible game, hampering his side by dropping back into midfield time and again and offering little up front. On its front page on the day of the game Marca crowed that Spain were going to put the ageing Zidane out to grass. Roused into action, the great Frenchman directed traffic here, as the Spanish, their defence pulled this way and that by Ribery’s direct running, reverted to type, the euphoria of their opening performance vanishing into the Hanover night. Henry took a dive for the free-kick that led to the second goal, but there was no question France were the stronger side. For the Spanish the wait went on.
3. Northern Ireland 3-2 Spain; UEFA Euro 2008 Qualifier
David Healy’s hat-trick had the Windsor Park diehards jigging in disbelief and marked a turning point in Spanish football history. The fans and the media called for Aragones’ ashen-faced head after this horror show but it was skipper Raul who was night’s big victim. This would be the last of his 102 international appearances and though the debate about whether he should return to La Selección rumbled on for the best part of the next five years, neither Aragones nor his successor Del Bosque yielded to media or public pressure. Caught up in an argument with pro-Raul fans the following year, Aragones said, “What have we ever won with him?”. And reflecting on the Belfast debacle a couple of years ago, the gruff coach commented: “After that game there were things that needed to be done for the good of football. Some players weren’t performing as well as we would have liked and he [Raul] one of them was him.”
4. Denmark 1-3 Spain; UEFA Euro 2008 Qualifier
Spain lost horribly in Sweden a month after their defeat to Northern Ireland and needed two late goals from Andres Iniesta, by this time an integral part of the side, to secure a win and a draw against Iceland. Defeat on this trip to Aarhus could have been catastrophic, with Sweden leading the group, Spain level with Northern Ireland and the Danes with a game in hand on them. The doubts were quickly dispelled as La Roja, lining up with Fabregas, Xavi and Iniesta in midfield, passed the home side to distraction, the patient move that led to Ramos’ delicious goal later being identified as the moment when tiki-taka was born. Two victories later, they were through as group winners
5. Spain 0-0 Italy (Spain win 4-2 on penalties); Quarter-Finals; UEFA Euro 2008
The first of ten consecutive clean sheets Spain have now kept in EURO and World Cup knockout matches, equating to a staggering 990 minutes. Though the Italians were on their way down after winning Germany 2006, they still represented a major mental obstacle for the Spanish, who had never beaten them at a major tournament (with the exception of the 1920 Olympics) and had made an unhappy habit of reaching the last eight and going no further. Spain were the better side and engineered the better chances, but the omens suggested they would have no chance in the shootout, having lost three times on penalties on the date the game was played, 22 June. Superstitions and past failures mean nothing to this new breed, however, a point they proved on this semi-final night in Vienna.
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