Spain's path to Brazil complicated with streak-snapping draw
Spain was held to a 1-1 tie by France, ending a 24-match qualifying streak of wins
Spain will probably now have to get a result in Paris to avoid a World Cup playoff
The problems for the Spaniards against France were concentrated in the midfield
MADRID -- And so at last it happened. After seven competitive games, Iker Casillas finally conceded a goal. After 24 consecutive victories in World Cup and Euro qualifying, Spain didn't win. They didn't lose, either, but it was still a surprise. They. Did. Not. Win.
It marked the first time in five years that happened in a qualifier. A 1-1 draw with France means that Spain will likely have to get a result in Paris in the spring. Only one team will go through automatically to the 2014 World Cup from Group I: either Spain or France will have to negotiate a playoff. Olivier Giroud's header in the 93rd minute means it is now more likely to be Spain that faces a home-and-home with another second-place nation for one Brazil berth.
Spain was seconds away from having a three-point lead over France, three wins out of three. Now, both countries are on seven points. A draw in Paris may be enough, not least because if the reigning world champions finish level on points it will be overall goal difference that decides who goes through in first place, and Spain beat Georgia and Belarus away 1-0 and 4-0, respectively, while France won 1-0 in Finland and 3-1 at home against Belarus and still have to travel east. But, still, Spain's task just got a whole lot more complicated.
Before the game, L'Equipe had declared France's task impossible. Spain had missed a penalty, and Giroud's goal was so late that there was hardly time to kick off again. But when it came, it was deserved. Said France coach Didier Deschamps: "It would not have been fair for us to have lost this game." That is correct: The shot count read: 12 (five on target) for Spain versus 11 (four) for France. "This was a mess the size of two Eiffel Towers," wrote AS's Tomás Roncero, and the reaction from some quarters was furious. Juanfran Torres, whose mistake gifted France possession for the equalizer, has borne the brunt. So, too, coach Vicente del Bosque. The knives were pulled out with indecent haste.
Ridiculous, really. Spain had just drawn with France. No disgrace. Its destiny is still in its own hands, and even if Spain is forced to go via the playoffs, they should still make it to Brazil 2014. Besides, if any national team has earned the right to be given the benefit of the doubt, it is the country that has done what no other country has ever done before and won three consecutive tournaments: Euros, World Cup, Euros. This may just be the best international team of all time.
Yet Spain did get it wrong. Strangely, though, some of those decisions where Del Bosque got it wrong could be interpreted as evidence that he has previously got it right, contrary to what some critics had suggested.
Spain lost control where it normally takes it: in the middle. The most remarkable thing about this game was just how long the game became, how much space there was in the middle of the pitch. Having been in a position to put the game beyond France in the first half -- Pedro had a great chance from Xavi's wonderful flicked pass and Cesc Fabregas had a penalty saved -- Spain found itself in a position it's in: a huge gap emerged between the back four plus Xabi Alonso, who on occasions found himself playing even deeper than Sergio Ramos, and the rest of the team.
Spain had started with a forward line made up of midfielders: Fabregas, Pedro and David Silva, who was then replaced by Santi Cazorla. The defense, too, was packed with midfielders: Jordi Alba has been successfully converted to left back, first by Unai Emery at Valencia and then by Del Bosque with Spain. And when Álvaro Arbeloa went off injured, his replacement was another converted fullback, Juanfran Torres. Then, of course, there was Sergio Busquets at center back.
All those midfielders and yet Spain lost control of the midfield.
First, though, the defense. Arbeloa has so often been the focus of criticism in the Spain team, the man some suggested was not worthy of his place, but Del Bosque stood by him. The moment he departed at the Calderón, Spain missed him. It is opportunistic to draw conclusions on Tuesday night's game alone and, to adopt the Spanish phrase, Juanfran was called upon to dance with the ugliest girl: facing Franck Ribery is never easy. But once Arbeloa had gone, the Frenchman tore into Spain's right flank. In the middle, Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol were both out injured, but it was still striking that Del Bosque decided against using Raúl Albiol or Javi Martínez alongside Ramos.
The problem is not so much that Busquets is a poor defender -- he is not -- but because when Busquets plays at the back Busquets can't play in midfield. His position Tuesday may be part of the explanation why Spain did not look like Spain. Few players, not even Xabi Alonso, read and control the game like Busquets does. During the 2010 World Cup, when many claimed Busquets was not worthy of a place in the side, Del Bosque said: "If I could be like any player I would chose Busquets." Even fewer partnerships control a midfield and protect a team like Busquets and Alonso.
Del Bosque has been criticized for playing two deep lying midfielders where his predecessor, Luis Aragonés, played just one (Marcos Senna). Against France, he played just one and was criticized for that, too. In the first half, it worked fine -- Spain had the chances to put the game beyond France -- but in the second perhaps we saw why he had played two before. France took a step up, particularly after the introduction of Mathieu Valbuena, and Spain was suddenly wide open. Teams who have opened up against Spain before have tended to get hammered -- think Russia at Euro 2008 and Italy in the final of Euro 2012 -- but not this time.
Spain has almost invariably faced sides that defend very deep. The problem has been finding a way through, but it almost always does, even if it is in the last minute: last night was the 20th consecutive game Spain scored. Besides, Del Bosque has always insisted a positive way of looking at the fact teams almost always adapt their style to Spain, looking to stifle and deny space: if they're defending, they're not attacking. And, Del Bosque has said, we're all more comfortable that way. If Spain dominates the middle, it can exercise control. Last night, for the first time in a long time, it did not.