Between the media and La Roja’s world champion players there has been much invoking of ‘four years ago’ over the last four days.
Back in South Africa, of course, Spain became the first team in history to win this trophy having lost the opening game.
En route to escaping the group the coincidence is that La Roja also needed to beat Chile back then, and did so.
Thus it’s only natural, journalistically at least, for some to reach for comparisons and draw positive conclusions.
But there’s a snag.
- Four years ago Spain lost 1-0 to Switzerland having totally dominated the game, shot at goal 24 times, put eight efforts on target, won 12 corners and suffered defeat only because it was one of those days when, as they say in La Liga, ‘the ball didn’t want to go in’.
Last Friday they were thrashed.
Four years ago Vicente Del Bosque’s men had Honduras, frankly a soft touch, as their second group rivals, and Chile third.
Chile also decided to abandon competitive football for the last 15 minutes of that game in Pretoria because they were sure that their progression was safe given the scoreline between Switzerland and Honduras and, at all costs, they didn’t want to surrender more goals to Spain. Del Bosque later called it the most placid 15 minutes of his tournament.
But let me remind anyone who’s forgotten the other parts of that game were anything but. Chile pressed and harassed like attack-dogs for the first chunk of the match, making their opponents feel like Marcelo Bielsa had somehow deployed 15 men on the pitch.
I fear it will be similar at the Maracana.
So, back to invoking the spirit of South Africa. I think it’s natural, but flawed.
There are very few similarities and, already, del Bosque needs to be looking for men who are not stuck in the past – men of destiny.
The last two results in Brazil, defeated 3-0 by Brazil in the Confeds Cup a year ago and humiliated 5-1 in Salvador last week, have left La Roja looking like victims.
The air of invincibility has been stripped and, suddenly, those who cowered back will be queuing up to show that they are now the ‘fastest gun’.
It was ever thus. However ‘great’ you are/were, once the young bucks are after you the past counts for nothing.
As far as the world and European champions’ prospects go, Chile have one central tenet which is both welcome and threatening: they like to attack.
Spain have for the longest time been sick of teams who ‘park the bus’.
Those who attack La Roja reap benefits
The paradox is that the last two sides who have really ‘got after’ La Roja – Brazil and Holland – have reaped major benefits.
Xabi Alonso, Pedro, Juan Mata – each of them over the last 24 hours has spoken about the fact that Chile are a brave, daring and attacking side.
The word ‘aggressive’ has been used repeatedly too – all of which leads you to suppose that this might be yet another toe-to-toe match in this slugfest of a World Cup.
Good value for the fans.
They mean ‘aggressive’ in both senses of the word. In football terms every ball is a prisoner, energy is spent trying to overrun opponents and the team likes to buzz towards the opponent’s goal.
But they play by street rules.
In the last three games against Spain, Chile have seen three red cards, two of which came in a relatively unimportant friendly which really boiled over.
Perhaps that was because having never beaten La Roja and having been 2-0 up in St Gallen, Switzerland, Chile were horrified at being hauled back and overtaken 3-2 in Autumn 2011.
It was one of those games which proved to Vicente del Bosque that the effects of the ‘Clásico war’ were dying down and the feeling of ‘all for one’ had been re-established between his players. They went on to prove him right by winning Euro 2012.
There was a moment in that game when Iniesta was being bullied at the edge of the pitch by Arturo Vidal. Instantly two pretty entrenched rivals, Alvaro Arbeloa and Sergio Busquets, joined forces to rush across and ‘dive in’ on Iniesta’s behalf.
There may be traces of that on Wednesday night. Players to watch for would include Iniesta who’s scored twice against Chile in the last three meetings and Eduardo Vargas. Vargas scored twice to rescue Chile in a pre-tournament friendly against Egypt which they threatened to lose and has also scored three times against Spain in the last three meetings.
By the day, training has gone from ghostly silent to boisterous and intense. The impact of the defeat against Holland was there, plain to see, but it has dissipated.
The words from del Bosque’s men have been bellicose. They want their pride restored, they want to get out of this group and, frankly, they think they will beat Chile.
I suspect they will. But this is one of those matches when if things go wrong, if nerves (of which there will be plenty) gnaw away at precision and confidence then the playing field will be pretty even.
If David Villa doesn’t start then I’ll be confused. In training he’s looked sharper and sharper, he’s been scoring goals and right now he looks to be not only Spain’s all-time leading scorer but their most in-form striker.
This is a tournament for athletes. The weather, the tiredness of long flights – these are elements which give a premium to those who are strong, fast and quick to recover. As such there has to be a place, soon, for Javi Martínez in Spain’s attempts to retain their trophy.
This is a battle for survival. Expect the niceties to be abandoned. David Villa is a man from La Roja’s past – he may need to also be their man of destiny.
Graham Hunter is the author of ‘Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble’ and ‘Barca’. You can follow him on Twitter here