By Rob Hughes
JOHANNESBURG -- Spain dealt comfortably enough with Honduras at Ellis Park Stadium. But beating one of its former colonies, 2-0, is far from convincing proof that the Spaniards are anywhere near to being the potential world champions we thought they might be.
David Villa scored both goals, and each was an example of just why Barcelona has recently invested €40 million, or $49 million, to buy him from Valencia. But in truth, Villa should have filled his boots with more goals, and Villa looked to be Spain’s only striker who was in form. He also was, by his own admission, extremely lucky to stay on the field after reacting to a kick by slapping a Honduran opponent in the face at halftime. The referee appeared to see it and told Villa to behave himself, but did not issue a red card.
His partner in attack, Fernando Torres, looks more like a barometer of Spain’s sporting health. Torres had knee surgery to repair torn cartilage in April, and though he started, the athleticism was missing, the sharpness was a memory, and the running that he and Villa do automatically for one another was only intermittently there.
So the Spanish attack is, like the team itself, in convalescence.
It is easy to understand why Vicente del Bosque, the national coach, used a group game against a team far below Spain’s level to allow Torres and Villa time to search for their form. At their best, they can take apart almost any defense; but their best may be weeks away.
Torres could have undergone surgery in January, but his club, Liverpool, delayed it. Clearly, it is cutting it fine to expect him to be Villa’s running mate all the way to the final of this World Cup on July 11.
But there is no other Torres. Spain, and Villa, need him because he is the true athlete of the pair. He has the height, the reach, the power, while Villa has the incredible knack of being in the right place to sniff out goals.
Their form is not by any means the only area of the side that keeps del Bosque wearing that hangdog, basset hound look of his on the sideline. The passing for which Barcelona is famed — and therefore this Spanish side that is molded on Barça — is not as fluent as it was when Spain won the Euro 2008 tournament.
It is there, but it stutters. Xavi Hernandez, arguably the world’s finest rhythm maker, has had his own thigh muscle tear, and he looks a week away from performing at his peerless best.
Cesc Fabregas, who would challenge Xavi if anyone could, is only just returning to form from a broken leg.
Excuses count for nothing. The tournament is now, even if Spain is not ready. And if Spain beats Chile on Friday to reach the second round, its opponent after that will be formidable.
It could be Brazil, or it might be Portugal. Brazil’s physical shape, its power as well as its skills, would crush the Spanish, based on the performances this week by the two squads. Portugal might not, but those seven goals the Portuguese ran in against poor North Korea earlier Monday were warning enough.
Del Bosque will say, as he often does, that it has to come one step, one game at a time. Monday was a better match by far for Spain than its opening game, when Switzerland clamped down its opponent with ultrastrong defensive pressure. Losing that game was the shock of this World Cup, and there have been some mighty shocks from the start. Those who like their soccer cultured might wish that Spain would get better quickly — quickly enough to give Brazil a real run for its money if that contest comes sooner in the tournament than many hoped for.
However, even to get through the first round, Spain needs its passing mojo back. Outpassing, outplaying, and outscoring Honduras was not that tough, but doing the same against Chile, a gifted and cunning opponent, will be a far greater challenge.
If Chile could shoot with anybody nearly as well as the Villa-Torres combination usually does, then we might consider the Chileans a title prospect.
Monday was like shooting practice for the Spanish duo. Torres could have scored a hat trick, but missed all his chances before del Bosque decided that 70 minutes, rather than 90, was the limit he should run after his operation.
Villa scored a magnificent first goal, sprinting between two startled Honduran defenders, enticing a third, Osman Chávez, toward him. And then, when Chávez made a lunge at him, he slipped him and, off balance, hooked the ball into the top corner of the net.
Villa’s gesture, the matador withdrawing the cape in front of the bull, was delightful.
His second goal, created by the speed and pass of the Romany winger Jesús Navas, was also hit with such powerful instinct that again the Honduran goalkeeper could not get a hand to it.
Villa should have made it three, at least. He woefully misplaced a penalty kick, and he darted through a hapless defense often enough to where he should have become the second player of this tournament — after Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain — to claim the match ball for scoring a hat trick.
He has 40 goals in 60 appearances for his country, just four shy of Raúl González, the Spanish icon they said Villa could never replace. He is close now to that record, and in 42 fewer games than Raúl. Whether it will come during this World Cup might be determined by how far the healing process of the Spanish goes.
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