Death by 1000 passes: Sterile Spain head home after no-show


Spain made history on Sunday afternoon. They played 1114 passes after 120 minutes, the most since record keeping began. In the first 90 minutes they completed 770 passes, also the most since statisticians began keeping an eye on this kind of stuff. Sergio Ramos completed 141 of those passes, needless to say yet another record. But none of that mattered because Spain are out, and when Croatia take on to the pitch in Sochi on Saturday for their quarterfinal clash, their opponents will be Russia, not Spain.

The accepted wisdom in football is that possession is already nine-tenths of the game. The higher your possession, the higher your chances of winning the game. But not for Spain, who for all of their hogging the ball and denying Russia, did nothing of note. It was strange watching this game, with Spain knocking the ball sideways and backwards, anywhere but forwards. Russia, of course, had no interest in engaging with Spain as is their wont. When you’re the worst ranked team in your own competition and squaring up against the best international side of the past decade, doing nothing is exactly the strategy you go for. Defend tightly, hope for the best and say a couple of Hail Marys.

Spain were devoid of anything resembling a plan. When Sergio Ramos forced the issue early doors and goaded Sergei Ignashevich into scoring an own goal, you expected Spain to go for it and rack up a cricket score. Instead a strange torpor descended, they simply passed the ball around, perhaps expecting something to happen just because of who they were. They had only one shot on target in the first half and four touches in Russia’s penalty area. When Gerard Pique’s inexplicable handball gifted Artem Dzyuba a penalty equaliser, there was no response from Spain. No bombardment of Russia’s area or Igor Akinfeev forced to make an spectacular save. Spain treated a World Cup knockout game with all the fervour you’d expect to see in a late summer pre-season friendly.

Russia got what they came for and displayed the requisite skill needed to win a penalty shootout. Yet again Spain have lost on penalties to a host nation after what happened in the quarterfinals against South Korea 16 years ago. But unlike that afternoon in Suwon when Spain had two legitimate goals incorrectly chalked off and had reasonable complaints against the officiating, there was no one else to blame but themselves in Moscow. They played out a slow and boring game devoid of invention and precision. Spain died by a 1000 passes and they won’t be missed at this remarkable World Cup.

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