06 February 2013

Spanish Inquest: Clash of the continents

My column for Eircom SportsHub

Edinson Cavani has yet to strike up a partnership with Luis Suárez for Uruguay

Another slice of history beckons for Vicente Del Bosque on Wednesday. When Spain take the field against Uruguay it will mark the occasion of his 68th match in charge of La Roja - equalling the record set by Ladislao Kubala.
Unlike the Hungarian maestro, Del Bosque has laid his hands on international football's most glittering prizes. His side will face off against one of the great names in this arena, the Copa América holders of Oscar Washington Tábarez, as the first world champions meet the last.
In the last international cycle, this was the clash we were denied: the champions of Europe versus the champions of South America. They came close, but ultimately Brazil and Spain's paths never crossed. In the Confederations Cup, Spain were eliminated by the USA while Dunga's Brazil side fell to Holland in 45 minutes of madness in Port Elizabeth.
This doesn't quite have the same glamour billing as the clash that never was, and not just because for all their incredible successes Uruguay lack the cachet of Brazil. That terrific run which saw them make the semi-finals in South Africa and culminated with a record 15th continental title in Buenos Aires has petered out as the Celeste undergo a difficult generational change.
It looked to be going so well. Fresh from their success, Uruguay began the marathon South America qualifying section like a train. Moreover, they had the Olympics to look forward to as they looked to bed in the next generation talent from their underage squads.
But just as the senior side began to falter, the U23 selection endured a torrid time of it in London when the youngsters failed to step up and a heayweight frontline of Luís Suárez and Edinson Cavani failed to gel. Amomgst the pre-tournament favourites, they failed to progress beyond a navigable group.
Spain's exit at the same stage represented a hiccup, but for Tábarez this was a real blow. His reorganisation of the tiny country's youth set-up has seen them cast the net as far as possible in the hope of grooming the next generation of players for the senior team. It's not all about results, but their poor showing has left him reliant on ageing legs.
The resumption of their World Cup campaign brought further pain. A Lionel Messi inspired Argentina ran riot when the sides met in October, the 3-0 final score a pale reflection of their great rivals' dominance. That followed a 4-0 humbling away to a Colombia side on the rise.
One figure from that Olympic squad earmarked for the seniors was Southampton's Gastón Ramírez. The former Bologna man has had a mixed start to his time in the Premier League but was expected to feature. Unfortunately for Tábarez, an injury sustained at Wigan means he's absent.
This, and the fact that Diego Forlan won't start will necessitate a change of shape. A one-time progidy, the 23 year old Nicolas Lodeiro should start in the hole behind the forwards. This inteligent number 10 is rebuilding his career with Botafogo in Brazil following an unhappy stint at Ajax.
Forlan himself was in fine form on Spanish radio, as he reminisced over his 7 years in Spain. Asked if Uruguay were 'the kings of football' he sensibly batted away the question, before turning more serious in his response.
“It's inexplicable - if you look at it logically - that a country so small, with three million-odd people, can keep competing against the big boys and winning titles... it's extraordinary” Given that Forlán has been the glue that held their attack together, it'll be interesting to see how they fare without him.
For Spain's part, it's likely that their line-up will have a distinctly Barcelona makeup. Xavi and Xabi Alonso have both withdrawn, meaning an abandonment of Del Bosque's favoured double pivot for something more akin to the Catalans' take on 4-3-3.
Sergio Ramos and Álvaro Arbeloa are expected to make up the right side of defence, with Chelsea's Juan Mata the remaining non-Barcelona player in an eleven which will include Victor Valdés. Cesc Fábregas has been in the form of his life, often lining up in the forward line for his club but should feature in the midfield here.
Many long to see Isco get his maiden run-out but as, in his own words, “the best players in the world in my position are ahead of me” he'll surely start on the bench. Carles Puyol will win his 100th cap, while Chelsea's César Azpilicueta and Mario Suárez of Atlético hope to feature at some point for their first.
More than anything, this game represents and interesting clash in styles. Uruguay are no mugs, they know their strengths and their success has been built on playing to them. This means that a hard running midfield focusses on winning the ball before supplying it to the heavy hitters up front. Whether they will see enough of it and whether Lodeiro will prove adept at providing the darts remains to be seen.
Their preference is for a deep defensive line, and this will be further necessary as their captain Diego Lugano looks sure to feature. After 18 months with limited game time at PSG prior to his recent move to Málaga, he'll form a Spain-based partnership with Atlético's Diego Godín.
The likely full-back pairing of Inter's Álvaro Pereira and his namesake Maxi of Benfica are expected to patrol the whole flank, using their energy to give width in attack without compromising their defensive duties. Another option on the right is the more defence-minded Martin Cáceres, who's also comfortable at centre back and being part of a back three.
18 months ago before the South Americans suffered their prolonged dip in form, their chances of a win would have looked a distinct possibility. As it stands, they find themselves very much the underdogs. But it's a role they've always revelled in, and if the Suárez-Cavani partnerhip finally clicks they have the tools in their locker to put the hurt on the World and European Champions.

Original article here on Eircom SportsHub

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