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It took Spain 40 years to rebuild their national team into a championship-winning force, so 55 minutes was never going to be too long to wait. Still, that’s how long they were kept at bay by Bora Milutinovic’s limited but very well-organised Asian champions.
With ten men behind the ball throughout, Iraq stifled the Spanish attack to such a degree that, had it been an incarnation of the same side from a few years ago, one might have wondered an upset was on the cards. However, the European Champions are very difficult to bargain with at the moment, and that they would eventually get the result was never much in doubt.
Still, Vincente del Bosque’s side will be mindful of their need to address their sluggish start. For all of Iraq’s well-drilled defending, the Asian side’s key weapon was their opponents’ composure in front of goal. Several very good opportunities went begging before Spain even registered their first shot on target, a tame header by Joan Capdevilla from Xavi’s free kick with 40 minutes played.
Iraq will perhaps be disappointed with their defending of set pieces overall, in fact: for such a disciplined side, the majority of their best work stemmed Spain’s ambitions from open play. When the dead ball routines were brought to bear, however, Iraq always looked a step behind the European Champions. David Villa, who had spurned the goalless first half’s best opportunity when he fired a left-foot volley inches wide of the right post, should have done better on 52 minutes, firing a free header straight at the Iraqi goalkeeper Mohammed Gassid. Three minutes later, he made no mistake from Capdevilla’s left wing cross, looping an altogether less powerful effort inside Gassid’s left post.
To Iraq’s credit, they pushed on, but always mindful of Spain hitting them on the break it was never likely to match Egypt’s inspired chasing of Brazil on Monday afternoon. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Spain did not settle into more of a rhythm and add to their goal tally. Aside from an effort by Mata after typically intricate build-up play and an array of blasted long-range half-chances, Spain perhaps looked less persuasive than they had before taking the lead.
Less persuasive but rarely troubled. Spain have now been FIFA’s number 1 ranked team for almost a year, and look to be settling into their new role with comfort, if not always the gusto so evident in Euro 2008 or in Sunday’s game with New Zealand. In many ways, difficult tests like this one are more impressive than goal-happy performances of dominance and swagger, a better indication of a winning mentality. They now move into the semi-finals and, with their enormous strength throughout the squad, must be hot favourites to win their first Confederations title.
Iraq, who enjoyed their best spell of the match when throwing caution to the wind in the final ten minutes, will not be too downhearted. With a point on the board, a weak Group A and their last game against New Zealand, a more positive approach could see them yet make the last four if other results go their way.