I was lucky enough to have a ringside seat for Spain’s 5-0 flaying of Belgium in September 2009, one of the ten wins they racked up in qualifying for South Africa 2010. It was the kind of performance you’re not likely to see from them these days, not with so many opposing sides intent just on denying them space and time.
Attempting to give as good as they got, however, the Belgians allowed an Iniesta-less Spain too much room and were sliced apart, with Pique surging forward at every opportunity, David Villa tormenting his marker on the left and Xavi directing traffic with his usual aplomb.
What I remember most from the game, though, is the passing of Xabi Alonso. Though Marca only saw fit to give him two stars out of three, his distribution was excellent, particularly when the recipient was Villa, stationed out on the left touchline.
Time and again Alonso received the ball and sent instant, inch-perfect crossfield passes to Villa’s feet, one or two of them – it seemed to me – played without even looking. There was nothing Hollywood about these balls, no attention being sought. They were raking deliveries that pulled the harried Belgian defence further out of shape and gave Villa the rapid service with which he could then supply Fernando Torres or cut inside and go it alone.
There was nothing Hollywood about these balls, no attention being sought. They were raking deliveries that pulled the harried Belgian defence further out of shape
Alonso has no such obvious outlet for his passing at EURO 2012, but his value to the side remains just as high, despite the criticism he has received merely for being one half of Spain’s doble pivote, the deep-lying midfield tandem he has formed with Sergio Busquets during the Del Bosque era and the rock on which La Roja is securely founded.
And yet the Real Madrid man is much more than just a sheath in Spain’s double midfield barrier method, a point he proved in Saturday’s effortless defeat of a timid France side. Laurent Blanc’s decision to play two right-backs to counter the threat posed by the Iniesta-Alba tandem played into his hands in particular. Try to stymie Spain in one area and they’ll hurt you in another, which was graphically illustrated when the unmarked Alonso sauntered forward in the 19th minute to coolly nod in Alba’s teasing cross.
It was the perfect way for Spain’s fifth-most capped player to celebrate a century of international appearances, 79 of those games having now ended in victory (a world record for players with 100 caps or more). It was also vindication for Del Bosque, who has made Alonso a non-negotiable part of his plans since taking over.
The coach has been a staunch defender of the player throughout his stewardship, insisting that neither he nor Busquets are “rockbreakers” and that the Basque has an important attacking role to play in the side.
The statistics back that up. Alonso is now the second-highest scorer of the Del Bosque era with 14 goals, eclipsed only by Villa with 33, a figure that reflects his cool head from the penalty spot (when Villa is absent) and willingness to shoot from positions where his midfield colleagues might choose to pass instead.
Alonso is now the second-highest scorer of the Del Bosque era with 14 goals, eclipsed only by Villa with 33
His performance against the French, which began with a trademark long-range effort, underlined his value to the side. Completing 97 passes out of 108 and excelling in a position slightly ahead of his doble pivote partner, it was the unruffled Alonso and not the slightly off-key Xavi and Iniesta who set the tempo for Spain’s easy win, his range of passing and vision helping them to keep the ball away from their tiring rivals.
The manner in which he celebrated his immaculately taken goals also said something about his contribution to the team, epitomising the modest, toned-down approach that prevails under Del Bosque. Though habitually questioned in some sections of the Spanish media, Alonso had no message for the press corps, no vindicatory T-shirt to reveal – just a broad smile and a raised arm.
But then, Alonso just doesn’t do angry, keeping his head even in the white-hot atmosphere of a Real Madrid-Barcelona clash. At the end of a typically tetchy Champions League semi-final second leg between the two sides two seasons ago, and after his disgruntled colleagues had trudged off the pitch chuntering about refereeing conspiracies, he stayed behind with Alvaro Arbeloa to congratulate the victors. His level head has no doubt helped smooth relations between the two sets of players in the Spain dressing room, never testier than during that four-game clásico saga of spring 2011.
Given the status he now commands under Del Bosque and his club coach Jose Mourinho, for whom he performs a similarly essential function, it is hard to believe that Rafael Benitez once set about offloading him to Juventus to fund the purchase of Gareth Barry, or that Luis Aragones used him in only 25 of the 54 internationals he was in charge for.
Part of Spain’s problem in the past was their flakiness under pressure. Yet there is little chance of Alonso folding should Spain find themselves in the unusual position of chasing the game against Portugal on Wednesday. Passes will continue to be punched, tackles made and ground covered. And if that’s not enough, and no matter what’s gone before, there’ll be a sporting handshake for the winners at the end of it all.
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