The part-timers from Honduras took on the mighty European champions Spain with it all at stake: a loss for the Spanish side would see the tournament favourites eliminated at the first hurdle. What could possibly happen? Well, naturally enough, Spain won at a canter. However comfortable the performance, though, the margin of victory could yet cause some furrowed brows and frenzied abacus work come this Friday evening’s Group H deciders.
Make no mistake, Spain were achingly superior in every department tonight. When the mood to work through the gears took them, they were also performing at a level close to their imperious best. The continued straining for an elusive end product which so characterised their surprise opening defeat to Switzerland continued, though – a concern exacerbated by their having the group’s second-strongest team as their final opponents.
Star of the show was David Villa. In the absence of Andres Iniesta, Villa started in an unfamiliar left-wing role. To his credit, he kept his head down and played it with some discipline. After 18 minutes he could wait no longer, though, and the artistry of his subsequent cut-inside produced the best goal of the tournament so far. An almost imperceptively quick touch took him clean through the centre of his two markers, before slashing the ball into the top of the net. He added a second just minutes into the second period, Spain starting to look comfortable now and stroking the ball around with an aplomb approaching their best on the right side. In oceans of space on the edge of the box – as were his teammates all evening – his shot took a deflection past the Honduran goalkeeper, and that was that.
It could, and perhaps should have been more. Maybe quite a few more. A late effort was saved by an excellent last-ditch saving header by Sergio Mendez just before he could make contact, and another gilt-edged chance went begging when a quick-fire one-two with Navas ended with the winger overhitting his return pass with just the keeper to beat. However, it was a penalty miss which has the potential to cause sleepless nights for years to come: Navas had his feet taken away on the right side of the area but Villa pushed his placed spot kick just wide of the goalkeeper’s left post.
As for Villa’s distinguished teammates, they all showed touches of their best form but all too fleetingly: many of them still look just half a step short of total sharpness. Worst offender for this was Fernando Torres, starting the game for the first time this tournament but clearly lacking his best form. He had several good touches to make himself chances, but wasted every one with poor finishing. Best of the bunch were flying full-back Sergio Ramos and second-half substitute Cesc Fabregas. Ramos spent the majority of the game playing as an orthodox outside-right and causing no end of problems for the opposition defence, whilst Fabregas’ first touch was to round the Honduran keeper, only to see his goal effort cleared away from the line by Chavez.
As for Honduras, they were outclassed but never shamefully so. They never let their heads drop from first to last, even though the hardest they worked the Spanish defence throughout was to test their aerobic fitness levels making their way back from their position several yards past the centre line. Their coach, too, made a positive impression by throwing on an attacker at the interval, the fabulously named Georgie Welcome – no doubt fresh from a 45-minute set of jazz standards with George Welcome and The Welcome Mats at Ronnie Scott’s – and continuing to try and play the right way rather than simply try to act as a spoiler. Their standout man was right-sided winger Walter Martinez, who provided the majority of his team’s most effective forward play.
The key point is, though, that Honduras – a country in only their second ever World Cup finals and who last scored at this level of the tournament 28 years ago to the day – could still hold the key to who qualifies for the second round. With Switzerland surely favourites to win their encounter, it leaves Spain needing to get a win from their game with Chile to be sure of a last-sixteen place. The Group H finale on Friday – like so many of the other groups in this bewildering World Cup – promises to be monumentally dramatic and, for someone, completely devastating.
Which is why we all love sport, I suppose.
Our thanks to Historical Football Kits for allowing us to use their images.