Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. Possession and pretty passing is all very well, but it is still a means to an end. And without the end, the means become trivial.
Spain suffered in that respect on Monday. All the pre-match talk had centred on the possibility of La Roja and Croatia making a pact to draw 2-2 and isolate Italy. In the end, there was no 'biscotto' though, as tough cookie Croatia complicated things for the champions. And save a late goal from Jesus Navas, there was not much fun, either.
Vicente del Bosque's side huffed and puffed against Croatia, eventually edging out their opponents and riding off with a win. But this was no vintage Spain.
Nor was it against Italy, in the opening Group C game of the competition. Then, there had been no striker, just busy midfielders bustling busily around the opposition area but without a real purpose or clear objective. It was like they were trying to walk the ball into the net.
And against Croatia, that's exactly what they did. Cesc Fabregas came off the bench and lofted an outrageous ball over the Balkan back line to Uefa's Man of the Match Andres Iniesta, who in turn squared unselfishly for substitute Navas to blast home virtually on the goal line. It was a moment of real quality, but these have become few and far between of late for La Roja - at least in front of goal.
Spain against Croatia
|1||Spain hit the back of the net just once as Navas blasted home from point-blank range in the 88th minute.|
|2||Croatia saw two very possible penalty appeals waved away; one for a foul by Ramos, the other by Busquets.|
|8||Spain's shots on target on Monday.|
|69||La Roja had almost 69 per cent possession, but didn't make it count.|
|327||The passes completed by Xavi so far at Euro 2012. He made just 15 more in the whole of Euro 2008.|
|758||The passes completed by Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets in the group stages - 152 more than the entire Ireland team.|
It's not all Spain's fault, of course. Italy had refused the pìtch to be watered in the sides' 1-1 draw last week, and defended with discipline to close the small spaces in midfield where Spain look to do damage. Croatia, meanwhile, set two tight lines to stifle and suffocate the champions as they themselves opted to attack on the counter. Such systems, it must be said, are not conducive to fantasy football. The holders still dominated for the most part, but couldn't convert until right at the end. Like a flirty femme fatale, Spain get you all excited and expectant, but then leave you suddenly standing alone, wondering what went wrong. You haven't scored - and nor have they.
It didn't used to be like this. At Euro 2008, Spain came charging out of the blocks with a wonderful win over Russia, following up that 4-1 debut with a last-gasp 2-1 victory against Sweden and a similar success with a host of reserves versus Greece.
The quarter-final clash against Italy owed more to attrition than technicians as La Roja edged it on penalties, but a stunning second-half show sealed a 3-0 win over Russia in the semi-finals before a narrow victory versus Germany in the final. Following so many disappointments in major tournaments, Spain's style was born.
That style was subsequently polished and perfected by Barcelona under Pep Guardiola, and the emergence of the Catalan club as football's finest force between 2009 and 2011 proved beneficial for Spain, too, as the beautiful football practised at Camp Nou was replicated by La Roja. Including the then recently signed David Villa, seven Barca players started the World Cup final for Spain against Netherlands. It was a triumph made in Spain, but very much via Catalunya. And even though the last four games were all 1-0 victories, it remained exciting and exhilarating to watch.
But now the novelty is perhaps wearing off. With no orthodox strikers in the side, plus the much-maligned double pivot of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, Spain struggle to break down defensive rivals. And for all their brilliant build-up, it's putting the ball in the net that really matters. And on Monday, it took them a whole 88 minutes to do that. It's seemingly less effective than before, but is it less fun, too?