The flip side to an excessively cautious approach is the overeagerness to snuff out any lurking danger at the earliest opportunity. It’s laden with risk. So when Ferran Torres seared down the right flank, like a whirl of red, Iran’s left back Ahmad Jalabi charged to intersect him. He slid diagonally at Torres, like clumsy centre backs do when forwards are well past them inside the box. The kind of tackles red-card-brandishing refs relish.
Here, though, the tackle was uncalled for. Torres had a fair bit of distance to cover, and the mere knowledge that someone is shadowing him would have induced some doubt. If Torres had outpaced him, so be it, but letting the Spaniard off the hook entirely was foolish. It could have at least bought some more time for Iran’s defence to snuff out the attack.
But instead they were forced to reorganise the defence, as Jalabi was still on the ground and the defensive quorum was depleted. It also gave Torres ample time to find his man, Sergio Gomez, to whom he whittled out an inch-perfect cross. Gomez nearly made a hash of it, as his feeble first-time effort ricocheted off Taha Shariati. Fortunately, it fell invitingly back on his feet again.
The second time, though, he wisely chose Abel Ruiz, who has advertised several times his ability to wriggle past his squadron of markers in this tournament. At times, Iran had three of them tugging at him, but with clever positioning and an incredibly muscularity, he left them chasing his shadow. He serenely buried it to the left of the keeper, as Spain seized an early initiative in the match, which made an already edgy Iran edgier.
Maybe it was the big-match pressure that eventually unnerved Iran. For they were a far-cry from the disciplined, cohesive firm that ran Germany ragged in the group game, which would still be the upset of the tournament. They resembled a bunch of panic-stricken kids, cluelessly running behind the ball, the defensive shape in shambles and the midfielders overstrung. Or, as their gutted coach Abbas Chamanian describes, “stuck boys.”
Or, they might have been merely flummoxed by the artistry of Spain, who dished out easily their most comprehensive game of the tournament. “Near perfect,” as coach Santiago Denia asserts.
The European U-17 champions they might be, but for most part of the tournament Spain seemed wasteful at the front and fallible at the back. But Spain are known to steadily enhance their game, and reach the crescendo at the business end. On Sunday, in front of an appreciative crowd, their backline was hardly stretched and the forwards unfurled a game that automatically puts them into the tournament favourites’ bracket. Suffice it to say that from the Brazil game, they have lifted their game by a few notches.
Part of the crowd on the hot and humid Sunday evening might have been pining for an upset — Iran headbands were spotted aplenty among the stands — but by half-time they were fully converted, baptised by Spain’s beguiling brand of crisp and fluent game. It wasn’t what you call textbook tiki taka — over the years they have improvised and expanded the scope of it, while not compromising on the fundamentals. To take some liberty, it was hybrid tiki taka, wherein the short-passing form was blended with pacy attacks from the flanks. “We realised that playing through the inside of their defence was difficult. So we attacked from the outside channels. So we spread out, thus restricting their exceptional counterattacking ability,” explains Denia. “We also didn’t look for any kind of possession, but vertical possession. We had to identify where we had possess to the ball,” adds Denia.
Whereas Spain generally prefers the attacking 4-3-2-1 formation, the coach upgraded it to an ultra-offensive 4-3-3, where Cesar Gelabert operated as an auxiliary striker. It could have easily back-fired, as the high line of attack would have exposed their midfield. But Iran couldn’t devolve means to unlock this ploy. Instead, they let him roving in empty spaces with a lot of liberty. Efforts to stifle him meant Ruiz and Torres were unburdened off the heavy marking they usually endure.
Spain’s precision in the passing cut the Iran defence open. Jalabi’s error only symbolised their confusion, and it came at the worst possible time, just when it seemed that Iran had weathered the early storm. The coach agreed as much.
“The first 20 minutes we were terrible. We were disorganised and freely let them into attacking positions. The link-up between forwards and midfielders was terrible. And when we were settling down, they scored the goal that changed the match’s tempo,” said Chamanian.
The first goal was so tempo-dictating that the match unravelled into a mere stroll for Spain, and in the end, the scoreline of 3-1, monstrous as it looks now, doesn’t even fully depict the utter ruthlessness, almost a calm serial-killer-like insouciance, they demonstrated. On a slightly luckier day, any of Torres, Ruiz and Gomez would have ended up with hat-trick.