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Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Switzerland-Spain ups Cup ante

By Brad Feldman

This is a good day for good soccer. Let’s be truthful, some of the more anticipated World Cup matches so far have disappointed in terms of quality and excitement -- Portugal/Ivory Coast and Netherlands/Denmark come to mind. Today, however, not only were there a couple of good games to watch, but we had our first major upset.

In the early match, Chile was a deserved winner over a game Honduras side that isn’t quite up to Chile’s level but is underrated nonetheless. The Hondurans misfortune is being drawn into Group H with the likes of Spain, Switzerland and Chile.

You want to talk about good-looking football, the Spanish play with style and you could see from the opening of their game against Switzerland that the Swiss setup -- as pointed out by Robbie Mustoe -- was designed to keep the likes of Barcelona superstars Xavi and Andrés Iniesta from playing their short passing game through the middle. Swiss manager Ottmar Hizfeld is no dummy; he looked at the skill-packed Spanish lineup and decided that his job wasn’t to create entertainment but rather to try to dig out a result.

While Switzerland defended stoutly in the first half, Spain certainly threatened. Gerard Piqué had a great chance in the 24th minute for the defending European champs but Swiss goalkeeper Diego Benaglio was up to the task and made a great save. This would be a theme throughout the game.

In the 30th minute, Stéphane Grichting fouled Iniesta and was booked after a knifing run and dagger ball out of midfield, but the ensuing free kick went begging. Things started to look dire for the Swiss defensive effort when manager Hitzfeld had to withdraw Phillipe Senderos because of an injury.

Spain continued to threaten in the first half -- passing, moving without the ball and dribbling through the Swiss like they were, well, Swiss cheese. David Villa went close a couple of times right at the end of the first half, but somehow the score stayed 0-0. Through 45 minutes, Spain had 72 percent of possession, according to espnsoccernet.com.

Then, in the opening five minutes of the second half, Real Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso increasingly tried to influence the Spanish attack and it seemed like it was just a matter of time before a goal came.

Well, in the 52nd minute there was a goal but -- shock of shocks -- it was Switzerland who scored. Gelson Fernandez capitalized on Spain goalie Iker Casillas’ error, but it was Eren Derdiyok who laid out bravely to pry the ball loose. 1-0 to the Swiss. Wow.

Now things were going to get interesting. Spain picked up the pace and the field suddenly seemed more stretched while Switzerland started to feel the confidence flowing after the goal. With Spain pressing right at the hour mark, Benaglio made another big play, beating Villa to the ball at the top of the box.

Spain manager Vicente del Bosque then pulled David Silva and Sergio Busquets off for Jesús Nava and, significantly, Liverpool’s El Niño, Fernando Torres. With Torres moving in next to Villa in a 4-4-2, the tactical change nearly paid dividends right away, with Iniesta again close to scoring. Still, the land of fondue and numbered bank accounts held its lead.

Alonso’s 70th-minute rocket off the crossbar on a corner (produced by a Torres-created chance) with a driving run and shot was further warning that Spain had its tails up. Right at 74’, Derdiyok nearly scored twice in a row and things continued to open up.

Iniesta went off for Pedro (after getting crushed by Stephan Lichtsteiner) a loss for Spain for sure because Iniesta had been creating so well. I’ve been a Hakan Yakin fan since his glory days at FC Basel, but I was surprised to see Hitzfeld take Derdiyok off in favor of the skillful Yakin. Clearly it was an experience thing.

With Spain throwing numbers forward in the closing minutes, it seemed impossible that English referee Howard Webb could come up with five minutes of added time. But the Swiss -- they know how to keep track of time -- managed the stoppage time well (though a Yakin handball gave Spain a late attacking free kick) and the 1-0 upset was complete.

The lesson here is that pretty, passing soccer doesn’t always do the job. Spain had 74 percent of the possession and a 24-8 edge in shots, so it’s not that the Spaniards tried to walk the ball into the net, but rather that Switzerland's organization, opportunism and great goalkeeping were enough to stifle Spain’s superior skill.

The Spanish are not just the Group H favorites but many bookmakers’ favorites to win the whole tournament, so this result is massive. Still, I think Alexi Lalas was overstating his case to call Switzerland a “blind squirrel.” This is a good Swiss side with several quality players and a savvy coach.

Brad Feldman is the television and radio play-by-play voice of the New England Revolution and supervising producer for all of the Revolution's regional telecasts. He is host of the online programs RevsWrap and In the Net and has 12 years of experience announcing and producing MLS and international soccer TV. He will be blogging on the FIFA World Cup for ESPN Boston throughout the tournament.