Friday, June 03, 2011

Scouting Report: Spain^

From the US National Team Players Association

By Clemente Lisi – FOXBOROUGH, MA (Jun 3, 2011) US Soccer Players

The United States will take on world champion Spain on Saturday afternoon in a marquee friendly ahead of next week’s Gold Cup. For Spain, the game at Gillette Stadium in suburban Boston represents its first-ever meeting with the USA on American soil. For the USA, the match is another chance to test itself against one of the best teams on the planet.

Spain has been dominant since winning the 2008 European Championship. Ranked #1 by FIFA, Spain has been one of the world’s top teams for the last three years. A favorite to win the World Cup going into last year’s tournament, Spain lost its opener to Switzerland 1-0, but recovered and went on to defeat the Netherlands in overtime 1-0 during a rugged final in Johannesburg.

Spain is undefeated this year, beating Colombia 1-0 in a friendly in February and recording a pair of victories in Euro 2012 Qualifying versus Czech Republic (2-1) and Lithuania (3-1) in March. In other words, Spain is very difficult to beat, losing only four times since November 2006. The USA was one of the sides (Argentina, Portugal and Switzerland were the others) that defeated Spain. The National Team’s 2-0 win came at the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinals, ending Spain’s 35-game unbeaten streak at the time.

Although the team that will face the USA does not include Barcelona’s duo of Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque has put together a strong roster. He left Xavi off the team so the midfielder could rest his injured Achilles tendon after last week’s Champions League final in London, while Puyol has been plagued by tendentious in his right knee. Also not with the team is midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who is sidelined with a thigh injury and was spotted in New York last month watching his former Arsenal teammate Thierry Henry and the Red Bulls play the defending MLS champions Colorado Rapids to a 2-2 draw.

La Roja does include 17 of the 23 players who won the World Cup. Sevilla striker Manu del Moral, who has previously played on the country’s Under-20 squad, is the only player on the roster to have never earned a cap. Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Pedro Rodriguez, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique are all expected to play as are Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas and defender Sergio Ramos.

“We’re sticking with the group that won us the World Cup,” del Bosque said during a news conference in Madrid on May 25th when he announced the roster. “I called the players who had a good season and tried to incorporate some new ones.”

The only obstacle standing in Spain’s way is team chemistry. The team came together beautifully in South Africa and for once was able to remove the underachiever tag that had plagued it at past World Cups. Following this past season’s heated Real Madrid - Barcelona rivalry that reached a boiling point when the clubs played each other four times over the span of a month in April, the players have tried to play down the animosity that was created by those matches.

“These games have always been controversial,” Villa, who scored in Barcelona’s 3-1 win over Manchester United in last Saturday’s Champions League final, told reporters this week. “These type of scuffles have always occurred during Real-Barca games. Now we are all together again for Spain.”

Potential dressing room animosity aside, Spain always puts together an attractive performance on the field. Del Bosque prefers a 4-3-3 that features Ramos on the right and a midfield packed with Barcelona players. Iniesta, who scored the game-winner in the World Cup final, is usually on the right with Villa in the center spearheading the offense. While the midfield gets all the attention for its finesse, one-touch passing and ability to build plays while maintaining oodles of possession, Villa remains one of the best finishers out there.

“For me, he is the greatest striker in the world,” del Bosque said last year on the eve of the World Cup final.

While Villa is coming off a successful club season, fellow striker Fernando Torres was a flop at Chelsea. The former Liverpool forward scored only once in 14 league games this past season and his goal against West Ham in April ended a 903-minute scoreless streak, making him one of the Premiership’s biggest busts of the year. Despite Torres’ poor form this past season, Del Bosque heaped praise on him.

“Fernando is a great player. He can play with David (Villa) or as a lone striker,” he said. “He is also a player who isn’t afraid to come back and help out the defense. I think these characteristics make him a good player.”

Against the USA, del Bosque could use Torres as a second-half sub to give Villa some rest or use the uncapped del Moral ahead of next fall’s congested Euro Qualifying schedule. Del Bosque believes Del Moral is one of Spain’s emerging talents and hopes to test where he can work best.

“He is in great physical shape, he can play on the left and right sides and is coming into camp fresh,” he said.

As for the USA, the game comes three days before it opens the Gold Cup against Canada in Detroit. Playing Spain will allow coach Bob Bradley to tinker with his lineup to determine who should get the start versus Canada.

Bradley has called Spain “one of the most talented teams” in the world and with nearly 60,000 tickets sold the game should create a great competitive atmosphere for the National Team.

“We value the opportunity to test ourselves against a team of their quality, and we couldn’t ask for a better match to prepare for the Gold Cup,” Bradley said.

The National team is at full-strength and features veterans Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey along with newer faces like Chris Wondolowski and Robbie Rodgers.

Wondolowski gives Bradley flexibility on attack (and a partner for Jozy Altidore) and Rodgers (in combination with Jermaine Jones and Maurice Edu) can be used on the flanks.

Freddy Adu, who played in the 2009 Gold Cup, is back and could use this opportunity to press the restart button on his National Team career. Whether he gets minutes against Spain is uncertain. The only certain thing is that the USA will face a tough challenge against Spain, but one that their own history has shown can be overcome.

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