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Urgent restoration work the only way to avoid ruin

ONCE wandering through the architectural marvels of Washington DC, Senator Thomas Gore, the grandfather of Gore Vidal, remarked that the capital "would make wonderful ruins".

Casillas' place in the team is under scrutiny after his mistakes against Netherlands
Casillas' place in the team is under scrutiny after his mistakes against Netherlands

His observation serves two purposes. It is an early but strong contender for a most pretentious World Cup preview introduction and it also has echoes of the spectacular shambles that became of the once-mighty Spain in the second half against the Netherlands.

The glorious, eye-pleasing edifice which was once the Spanish team was reduced to rubble on Friday night in Salvador. These ruins were wonderful both for Netherlands supporters and for those whose scepticism about the world champions has grown inexorably over the past year.

The cliché is that a team does not become bad overnight. Vicente del Bosque's side turned rancid in 45 minutes. It was evidence in support of the naysayers who have pointed to Spain's vulnerability, marked by the Confederations Cup defeat to Brazil and to Barcelona's toils last season.

The condemnation of all things tiki-taka is both premature and misplaced in this specific instance. If David Silva scores against the Dutch at 1-0 when he had only their goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen to beat, then . . .

Also, the humiliation imposed by Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben owed nothing to possession football but everything to defensive frailty. Spain, too, were not set up in what has become traditional, tiki-taka tournament-winning lines.

Tiki-taka had been refined, some insist abandoned, to accommodate Diego Costa. The strategy seemed to have worked. The Atletico Madrid player found space down the sides of the Dutch back three and won the penalty that Xabi Alonso converted.

This single goal is normally enough. Spain have been praised for the flair of their system but it is essentially a defensive set-up. Spain won the World Cup of 2010 with lowest goal tally of any previous winner, scoring just seven.

Therefore on Friday they had historical cause - and solid evidence - to believe that one goal would be enough. They were undone by a strategy that was most conspicuously used against tiki-taka by Sir Alex Ferguson against Barcelona at Wembley in the Champions League final of 2011. The Manchester United manager decided that his team should launch the ball forward early towards Wayne Rooney. He was rewarded by an equalising goal but by no more.

Barca won easily 3-1 but the Manchester United manager of next season - Louis van Gaal - used a similar system to defeat Spain. Statistics show that the Netherlands used the long ball more than any other team in the tournament so far. 'Long ball' is a derogatory term but Daley Blind's powerful, accurate cross for Persie's equalising header shows it need not be.

However, there is a more troubling element to the decline and fall of Spain. It was the manner of the capitulation. Players such as Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique performed so badly they seemed like unconvincing impostors. There was also the lack of conviction collectively. Spanish players looked at each other and instead of recognising greatness, they winced at seeing frailty.

Directness, pace and technique were used to demolish Spain. So can they rise from the rubble against a Chile side who would view a draw as a result that could see them progress?

Their problem tonight for del Bosque and his players is not just that they have to beat an impressive Chile side but may have to do so in some style. The goal difference of +2 to Chile against Spain's -4 tilts the balance of the group to such an extent that the Spain manager has already issued a call for sustained attack.

Spain scored 14 goals in eight qualifying games for finals in Brazil. Tahiti conceded 10 against La Roja in a Confederations Cap match but they are not serial inflictors of heavy defeats.

The message coming from the Spain camp is not only do they have to win, but win big. Yet two Spanish victories - against Chile and Australia - would leave the South Americans having to beat the Netherlands to progress.

The Spaniards face Chile tonight with a raft of questions about the line-up, their tactics and, most unusually, the temperament and will of their players.

Spain, of course, lost their first game in the World Cup in 2010 against Switzerland before going on to win the tournament. Their task in 2014 is much more difficult.

The Netherlands will surely defeat Australia and Chile are credible contenders for a spot in the knockout stages. Del Bosque has not only to pick the right formation, but to galvanise his squad. The Spanish contingent in Brazil has 16 members of the squad that won the World Cup. These are champions, players who have faced doubt and risen above it, competitors who have been tested and proved resilient. These are not just the adept technocrats of tiki-taka but proven, consistent winners. But that was then and this is now.

Spain have been dismantled in the Confederations Cup, Barca have been found wanting at home and in Europe and tiki-taka has seemed to fold under intense questioning posed by the power and pace of opponents such as Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich and the Netherlands. Del Bosque and his players have a restoration job to complete in just more than 90 minutes tonight. The potential outcomes offer a stark view. Spain either face ruin in the World Cup of 2014 or have the chance to build a foundation for a leap into the knockout stages.

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