Even as Spain entered the 2014 World Cup, looking down on all others atop the FIFA World Rankings, there were whispers of a downward slide coming for the defending champions.
After one fixture in Group B, those whispers are about to become shouts.
A team stacked with big names, and even bigger resumes, came apart at the seams against the Netherlands, surrendering four second-half goals in an almost inexplicable 5-1 whitewashing that has undoubtedly left Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque and his players in stunned disbelief.
Whatever tactical changes del Bosque ultimately makes heading into his team’s second contest against Chile on June 18, the biggest task for the long-time coach for now will be restoring faith amongst both his players and countrymen.
While the reigning champs started strong, it didn’t take long for the Dutch to rebound. Diego Costa, making his competitive debut for Spain, drew a controversial penalty that veteran Xabi Alonso converted to put the champs up 1-0 in the 27th minute. From there, one might have expected Spain to simply roll along to yet another win.
The Netherlands had no plans of capitulating however. And as the game wore on, the Dutch looked faster and stronger than their Spanish opponents. Unlike previous years when Spain appeared almost invincible with a lead, the team lost steam for the remainder of the opening half, culminating in a game-tying strike from Robin Van Persie in the final minute that merely served as a harbinger of things to come after halftime.
Both Van Persie and Arjen Robben had field days running at the defensive group of Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Cesar Azpilicueta in the second half. The Dutch playmakers combined for four of the Netherlands’ five markers on the day, while making Spain’s once tight defense look porous throughout the final 45 minutes.
Add in the notable missteps of Iker Casillas in goal and Spain is now left to pick up the pieces after absorbing the worst opening loss for a defending champion in World Cup history.
Whether del Bosque decides to shake up his defensive pairings remains to be seen. It certainly wouldn’t be surprising to see Cesc Fabregas, who came on too late to make much of a difference against the Dutch, enter the midfield equation against the Chileans. He could also turn to either Juanfran Torres or Raul Albiol on the outside after both Alba and Azpilicueta got caught cheating too far forward several times against the Dutch.
Either way, del Bosque and his team have little time to dwell on the disaster that was their debut in this year’s tournament.
It’s become readily apparent that Spain is no longer untouchable. Friday’s game all but sealed that fact. And you can bet Chile, with the likes of Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez leading the offensive thrust, will be eagerly awaiting their opportunity to take a swing at the champs.
Until then, the Spanish will be left to ponder where things went so wrong against the Dutch.
Yes, it was just one game. But certainly, Spanish eyes are no longer smiling.