At the spiritual home of the beautiful game, the team who have played it better than perhaps any other in history reached the end of the line. The Estadio Maracana was the venue and Chile the team who brought the curtain down on six years and three tournaments of domination by Spain with a 2-0 defeat that sends Vicente del Bosque’s side crashing out of the World Cup. In one of the competition’s all-time shock storylines, the all-conquering world champions become the first team to finalize their flights home from Brazil.
The scoreline may not have been as emphatic as the 5-1 defeat to the Netherlands that sent shockwaves around the world, but this loss was even more startling. Chile were hungrier, sharper, faster, both with the ball and without. The ferocious closing down that once left Spain’s opponents with no time to breathe was gallingly absent; the infallibly accurate quick passing and interchange of movement was nowhere to be seen.
Chile’s first goal summed up the difference. Xabi Alonso, once the man who never put a foot wrong in helping to dictate the metronomic Spanish tempo, sloppily gave the ball away, not for the last time. Chile’s pressing, as Spain’s once did so regularly, drew the error. And Jorge Sampaoli’s impressive team then pounced characteristically ruthlessly. After three passes past a Spanish defense that appeared to be running through quicksand, the ball was put into the back of the net by Eduardo Vargas.
Del Bosque had made two changes to the team that were humbled by the Netherlands five days earlier. He should have made more. The biggest culprit of that Dutch debacle, Iker Casillas remained and again he erred with disastrous circumstances. Two minutes before half-time, the man who lifted the trophy in Johannesburg four years ago effectively brought an end to his country’s hopes of retaining it. From Alexis Sanchez’s free-kick, Casillas inexplicably punched it straight back into the center of his penalty area. His teammates’ reactions were painfully slow, and so were his own. Aranguiz poked the ball back goalward and it floated into the side of the net as Casillas seemed to dive across almost in slow motion.
Del Bosque’s faith in several members of Spain’s glorious generation had proved to be overstayed. A fact almost acknowledged when Koke replaced Alonso at the break. It was too little, too late. The damage had been done. Spain head home, while a Chilean side, whose accomplishments are entitled plenty of attention alongside their opponents’ demise, join the Netherlands in the next round. While their two vanquishers will meet on Monday for the right to progress in first place, Spain will take on Australia to attempt to avoid Group B’s wooden spoon.
In that game we will surely see the start of the regeneration of the Spain team that the first two games showed had been too long in coming. And it could well show that there is plenty of encouragement to take. While this defeat surely spells the end of this Spanish team, there is little reason to think that it will be the end of success for Spain or their style of play.
There is huge talent coming through the ranks in Spain, which gives hope for the future but also adds scrutiny to Del Bosque for the lack of turnover in the squad, despite age, fatigue and bad form appearing to hamstring a number of players at this World Cup.
Xavi and Gerard Pique were left on the bench at the Maracana, replaced by Javi Martinez and Gerard Pique. Almost right from the kickoff, though, there was a sign that the listlessness remained. Arturo Vidal was able to simply force his way through the challenge of Martinez into the box to come close to creating a goal for Vargas.
As well as personnel, there was also a slight tweak in Spain’s formation as Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Pedro lined up behind Diego Costa in a 4-2-3-1. Costa’s continued place in the side was perhaps the biggest surprise. The Brazilian-born striker again had every touch booed by his compatriots in attendance and he again looked lacking in fitness and compatibility with his teammates. Indeed, it appeared in this match that Spain were trying to modify their famed tiki-taka approach to help get the best out of Costa. There were certainly more high balls early on than has been customary over the last six years.
It only added to the sense that this was a team lost. The dynamic energy that has been a hallmark of Chile’s team since the days of Marcelo Bielsa and is now continued by his disciple Sampaoli was ripe to exploit Spain’s problems. In the 19th minute, Chile’s high pressing harried Alonso into an error, Vidal found Alexis Sanchez and the man who plies his trade in Spain with Barcelona supplied a cutting through ball for midfield runner Aranguiz. After an instant ball slid across the box, Vargas had the time to take a touch before powering home.
The denouement was yet to come with Casillas’s error and Aranguiz’s finish; a goal that, as when going two behind against the Netherlands, led to panic in the Spanish ranks and the threat of quickly shipping further goals.
The introduction of one of the new generation of players, Koke, at the break initially signaled a rally of sorts. It might have been far more had Sergio Busquets not missed a glorious chance to pull a goal back in the 53rd minute. Costa made his only noteworthy positive contribution of the match with an overhead kick across the face of goal and Busquets appeared certain to score from inside the six-yard box. Instead, somehow the ball struck his shin and went wide of the post. It was a demonstration of the imprecision that plagued Spain’s play in key areas.
Costa, who had earlier stumbled when given a chance of his own was soon taken off, but only to be replaced by a player in whom Del Bosque’s faith has surely been more misplaced than any other, in Fernando Torres. By that point Spain, perhaps with the exception of Andres Iniesta, were resigned to their fate. Chile, meanwhile, were still pouring forward. The exuberance, quality and indeed maturity of their play had been too much for Spain and might yet lead to more scalps to come in Brazil.