Sochi entertained the world with the incredible Winter Olympics four years ago, freestyle skiing, snowboarding and figure skating all captivating the world’s attention. The tricks and flicks oozing out during the events, even poetry couldn’t link the supernatural strength of these athletes and all of our brains, debating if this is really happening. We can all experience fantasy in our lives, and last night in Sochi, we were delivered a football match from the gods, was it real life or was it fantasy? I will debate this for quite some time.
The Iberian War was declared on the 11th March 1934, the first competitive match between the two, Spain absolutely obliterating Portugal 9-0 in Madrid, Isidro Lángara scoring five of them. From then, matches between the two have been extremely close, tactically brilliant with usually one goal doing the trick. Since the turn of the century, Spain and Portugal have met in three major tournaments, Portugal winning the first 1-0 in Euro 2004, whilst Spain would get revenge and knock them out of the World Cup in South Africa thanks to a David Villa goal. The last meeting went to penalties in Donetsk after a 0-0 draw, The Spaniards winning 4-2 in the shootout.
There’s been a shortage of goals in this fixture, but last night, both The Navigators and La Furia Roja produced an instant classic; not just because of the goals, but the manner they were scored, Spain’s incredible tiki-taka producing exquisite football and a well-drilled, organised Portugal using counters led by Cristiano Ronaldo to unravel Spain’s defence.
(Video originally published by @c_campbell18 on twitter)
Let’s start with Spain, tiki-taka has been ingrained in Spanish football for quite some time, but it isn’t just the tempo or the short passes, it’s having the game awareness of recognising where you are on the pitch and movement off the ball to expose space. Only the very best can perform this kind of football and that’s why Spain are so good at it. The passing stats were outrages, Sergio Ramos making 118 passes, Isco 103, Koke 90, Jordi Alba 88, and all there midfielders individually out-passing the entirety of Portugal’s team.
Spain set-up there passing structure within all flanks of the pitch, having at least three players linking in each flank. On the left you had Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba and Andres Iniesta, on the right you had Gerard Pique, Nacho, Koke and David Silva and the middle of the field was entirely patrolled by Sergio Busquets and a free-roaming Isco who’s influence on the game was breath-taking.
As the game processes, you can see the high-line produced by Ramos and Pique which would allow them to provide a forward pass, virtually play-making themselves. What makes Spain the most forward-thinking football team on the planet is that they can play the ball backwards whilst making progression forwards, the tempo increasing more and more to galvanise space.
A significant chunk of Spain’s touches on the ball was on the left flank, the free-roaming Isco would move over to this side to create overlaps alongside Jordi Alba bombing forwards and Iniesta who would be creating links going forward. During the later stages of the game, Thiago replaced Iniesta for the last twenty minutes. Spain actually dropped off the pace a lot after Nacho’s goal with both centre-backs dropping deeper, Thiago played a gigantic role and received a lot of possession. It worth pointing out that Thiago Alcantara was on for 20 minutes and had 30 touches of the ball, which is a ridiculous amount and any forward chances being created were produced by him.
Spain’s work with the ball was absorbing, but if you thought the way the tiki-taka was being played was incredible, the work in stopping it was sensational. All three of Spain’s goals came from unnatural circumstances from Spain’s point-of-view, a long-ball, a set-piece and a long shot from a centre-half playing right-back, bouncing off both posts.
Portugal defended in a 442 formation, both Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes dropped deeper to help full-backs Soares and Guerreiro in defence. It wasn’t everyone behind the ball, but between the lines, Portugal were compact and very hard to break down, even for Spain’s standard. In the first-half, it was surprisingly Bernardo Silva who had made the most tackles (3), which cancelled Iniesta’s influence for some of the game at least until Spain woke up.
As you can see, Portugal are tight, Guedes has travelled back into middle-third to enable him to carry the ball forward if a counter-attack occurs. When the ball was on either of Spain’s flanks, that’s when Portugal would press more aggressively towards the ball, both their wingers had a huge part to play in this.
From there, Portugal would move the ball onto the left and actually change formation into a 433. Ronaldo moved from his central role into the left-flank where he’d often carry the ball from defence into attack and be 1v1 with Real Madrid teammate Nacho Fernandez, who struggled to cope. Not only that but Raphael Guerreiro would be constantly on the overlap, as well as Bruno Fernandes and William Carvalho moving over to this side to provide a pass if needs be. Portugal’s counter-attacks were brilliant at relieving pressure on their ageing centre-backs and targeting Spain’s right-side in the early stages of the game.
The Portuguese missed two brilliant counter-attacking chances to further their one-goal lead, Guedes running away from the goal and getting his shot blocked was then followed by a poor touch when Ronaldo gifted him a great opportunity. It’s worth noting however that he’s probably the only other striker Portugal had that could match Ronaldo’s pace in these counters and made a brilliant assist for his second goal, taking the ball down on his thigh from a long-ball.
Tactically, both teams formed a really intriguing game and the clash of styles produced a match of football royalty. Cristiano Ronaldo was the crown jewel and all Portugal needed in the attack, which really states the amount of quality he possesses. The Navigator’s organisation in defence and press when the ball was out on the wings was worthy of them getting a result.
I believe without the goals, this still would’ve been by far the best game so far in the tournament, but the sheer quality in goals was the cherry on top of the cake. From Ronaldo’s early penalty, the tempo of the game didn’t decrease and forced Spain other ways to score goals. Look at the abnormal ways Spain had to create chances to enable them breaking-through the opposition defence. Tiki-taka was performed to A star standard, but even that didn’t go through Portugal’s roaring defence.
The Iberian derby is one of International football’s oldest battles, which has seen countless legends in each team’s arsenal. All sport has their Titanic rivalries, whether it’s between clubs or players. LeMond vs Hinault. Borg vs McEnroe. The All Blacks vs The Springboks. Maybe this hasn’t just sparked the biggest tournament on the planet, but also football’s biggest international rivalry. The Iberian War has just had it’s biggest battle.
Undoubtedly, a World Cup classic.