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Posted: Wednesday June 16, 2010 2:00PM ; Updated: Thursday June 17, 2010 6:08PM
Sid Lowe
Sid Lowe>INSIDE THE WORLD CUP

Spain continues to lack a Plan B when faced with defensive teams

Story Highlights

Switzerland's victory bore parallels to the U.S.' win against Spain

Spain was heavily dominant on possession and shots on goal

Spain needs an alternative option to break down highly defensive teams

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David Villa, Fernando Torres
The feared Spanish duo of David Villa (left) and Fernando Torres were ineffective against Switzerland.
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

"I don't know." That was what Swiss center back Philippe Senderos replied when asked how to beat Spain. He might as well have said: "Search me, mate" and it was a logical enough response. After all, it seemed like the impossible task.

Spain's coach Vicente del Bosque had spent the last year desperately trying to escape the favorites' tag that he described as a terrible trap, but he knew he was fighting a losing battle. It was about the only battle he did lose. Since he took over, Spain had won 23 of 24 games entering the World Cup. Only once had it been beaten -- against the U.S. in the semifinal of the Confederations Cup last summer.

It wasn't just del Bosque either -- the run stretched right back to an Andres Iniesta-goal at Old Trafford in 2007. Spain had lost just once in 49 matches. It had won the European Championships in brilliant style, finally ending a 44-year wait for international success, and had qualified for the World Cup with 10 wins out of 10 -- a feat never before achieved. No wonder everyone had them down as favorite this time. Real favorite.

Which is more than could be said for Switzerland. If Spain were 4/1 to win the World Cup according to the bookies, Switzerland were 175/1. The Swiss had qualified, sure, but the teams that failed to get through their qualifying group were Luxembourg, Israel, Latvia and Moldova. Hardly giants of the European game. At home against Luxembourg they had even managed to lose 2-1. And as Senderos admitted, half the players can't even communicate with each other -- the country is divided between German, French and Italian speakers.

Only, it turns out that Senderos did know how to beat Spain. "All you can do against them is run and run, defend well, sit deep and hope to catch them on the break," he said, by way of excuse. Thing is, it wasn't an excuse, it was a game plan. That is pretty much exactly how they beat Spain Wednesday -- in what must rank as one of the greatest World Cup upsets ever.

This defeat was faintly absurd. Well over 60 percent of the possession, 23 shot attempts and the goal happens like that? What, some are asking, is the point of pretty passing if a prosaic punt does the trick?

Well, a prosaic punt and a spot of slapstick. A long goal kick by the Swiss, nodded down by forward Eren Derdiyok. Followed by Blaise Nkufo's pass, a bounce off a knee, through the gap, Spain's goalkeeper Iker Casillas sprinting out and missing it, defender Gerard Pique falling over and getting a boot in his face. The ball squirmed through until eventually Gelson Fernandes bundles his way past to nudge it home as everyone tumbles around the area. And suddenly it's 1-0. Suddenly, Spain is on its way to an opening match defeat -- and no team has ever lost its opening game and gone on to win the World Cup.

It's tempting to write it off as an accident --which, of course, it was. But in a way it wasn't either -- even if the Swiss goal should have been played out to a soundtrack of drum rolls and cymbal crashes.

The Swiss have now gone over eight hours without conceding a goal, and while Spain had lost only once in almost 50 games, that one defeat came rather like this one did. On the break against a well-organized, aggressive, fast team. For Barcelona fans -- and the style that Spain have adopted is, with Xavi Hernandez at the heart of it all, very much Barcelona's style -- there was an even more recent and equally painful example: Barcelona's defeat against Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan in the Champions League semifinal.

Because, like Barcelona, while Spain were dominant, they were also wasteful and worryingly toothless. There were few genuinely clear chances. Of Spain's 23 shots, only eight were on target. David Villa looked a little flat, midfielder Sergio Busquets lacked fluidity, and even Xavi was unable to find the passes he normally does. As one commentator put it: "even Casillas seems not to be a Saint any more".

When Jesus Navas came on, he produced more crosses than anyone else in tournament so far. But few found their way to a waiting teammate. When Fernando Torres came on he was quick, but often too quick to control the ball, bundling his way through it, watching it escape him. When Cesc came on ... well, Cesc didn't come on.

Not that it was all about Spain. Because Switzerland, like Inter and so many teams at this World Cup (and in a way it is a pity), appeared to find a way to counteract a more talented team. A draw would have been brilliant for the Swiss. The winning goal was a bonus.

For Spain it was a kick in the teeth. It should still get through the group, but finishing second -- which looks likely now, after the impressive performance of Chile -- would in all probability see it play Brazil straight away. Spain can beat Brazil and it might well have had to beat them anyway if the Spanish were to reach their objective of winning the tournament. But no one expected to have to do it just yet.

Then there's the potential twin consequences of the defeat: has Spain lost its veneer of invincibility? And has everyone else learned how to beat them? Fundamentally, Spain was unlucky but it was also confronted by problems it couldn't overcome either here or at last summer's Confederations Cup. Does Spain now have to learn a different way round defensive sides who come and park the bus? Del Bosque has spent the last year trying to persuade everyone that Spain isn't favorite despite what they might think. Today, for the first time, they might even agree with him.

 
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