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Headline act outplayed, outclassed and . . . out

IT was like paying £300 for a ticket to see the Rolling Stones in concert then gradually realising that they weren't going to come out for an encore.

Iker Casillas, Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres head for the exit
Iker Casillas, Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres head for the exit

They'll come back, won't they? They have to come back. I don't think they're coming back. Is that it? That's it. They're finished. They're not coming back now. It's over.

That was what it felt like watching Spain being knocked out of the World Cup last night. Such has been the sheen of invincibility that has surrounded La Roja for the past six or seven years that it prompts those watching their demise to start to question their eyesight.

Every good thing has to come to an end eventually but logic is often suspended when it comes to the disintegration of a great. We see what it is happening but we cannot process the information. A state of denial is entered and it usually takes some time to snap out of it.

When Spain were humiliated 5-1 by the Netherlands in their opening group match, it was an obvious setback. But it was only one game. They had lost their first game in 2010, of course, and still gone on to win the World Cup. So they could do the same here.

Then in last night's second game, Chile went ahead within the first 20 minutes. Okay, so Spain are giving themselves a challenge but they'll find a way to come back into it. And then Chile score a second not long before half-time and Spain miss a sitter early in the second half and the penny finally, almost reluctantly, drops. They're not coming back. That's it. They're finished. It's over. For the first time since the 2004 European Championships, Spain have not made it out of the group stage of a major tournament.

The last time they didn't win a competition was 2006 when they were beaten in the last 16 of the World Cup by France. Since then they have known nothing but success; first the 2008 European Championships under Luis Aragones, and then the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 under Vicente del Bosque.

They were not among the top favourites to make it four tournament wins in a row but few could have predicted their demise would be so quick or so dramatic.

Their final game of the 2014 World Cup now becomes the most inglorious of dead rubbers against Australia. Thereafter they will watch the rest of the competition unfold on television back home.

It was a night when Spanish reputations were shredded.

Iker Casillas was perhaps fortunate to have kept his place after a haphazard night against the Dutch but the goalkeeper did little to repay del Bosque's faith in him. His error at Chile's second goal was a sign of a player bereft of confidence. There was no reason for not catching Alexis Sanchez's free kick but tamely punching it straight back out was the worst thing he could do. Charles Aranguiz promptly compounded the error, ramming the ball back past him.

Casillas is no longer first choice at Real Madrid, playing only in the cup competitions in recent seasons. At 33 years of age, the man considered by many as the finest goalkeeper of his generation is in danger of bowing out from frontline action somewhat unceremoniously.

The Diego Costa experiment has not been a success. The irony that the goals dried up for Spain the moment they introduced a traditional centre forward to their line-up will not be lost on many.

The country that introduced the "false nine" to the football lexicon chose to go a different route this time and it plainly didn't work out. Costa, the naturalised Brazilian, rarely looked the player who has enjoyed such a sensational season with Atletico Madrid, flashing one chance wide and seeing another blocked. He was hooked after 64 minutes, del Bosque belatedly acknowledging it was an experiment that had gone flat.

Spain, though, have not traditionally been prolific scorers so that was not the main problem. Instead it was defensive frailties that let them down, Casillas' struggles compounded by the obvious discomfort of Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and the rest. Pique paid for his performance in the Dutch game by being dropped for last night's match, his replacement Javi Martinez was not able to help stiffen Spanish resolve either. Carles Puyol was not always everyone's cup of tea but how Spain could have done with a defender of his brawn and aggression.

There was no place at all last night for Xavi, his metronomic recycling of the ball and ridiculously high pass completion percentage the key to Spain and Barcelona's dominance in recent years. Time catches up with us all, however and, aged 34, the midfielder is entering the twilight of his career. If rumours are true that he is set to leave Camp Nou and move to Al-Arabi in Qatar then we may have seen the last of him in a meaningful, high-profile match.

There will now be a raft of obituaries eulogising the death of tika-taka, the style of passing, possession and pressing that Spain, and Barcelona, have mastered in recent times. In truth, that way of playing, ingrained in the Catalan culture and fostered at Barcelona's La Masia famous academy, will evolve rather than die.

Spain last night simply did not have the energy, the firepower, or the concentration to make the system work. Ironically they were beaten by a team who possessed all of those attributes in spades. Spain have been undone by the ultimate tribute act.

Contextual targeting label: 
Football

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