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Spain's persistence pays off

Published: Tuesday 19 June 2012, 12.56CET
Against Croatia, for what seemed the umpteenth time in a major tournament, Spain scored a late winner. As Graham Hunter explains, this is not a chance occurrence.
by Graham Hunter
from Gniewino
 
Published: Tuesday 19 June 2012, 12.56CET

Spain's persistence pays off

Against Croatia, for what seemed the umpteenth time in a major tournament, Spain scored a late winner. As Graham Hunter explains, this is not a chance occurrence.

There is a school of thought, one from which I exclude myself, which says that a late goal in a difficult game is somehow lucky. It's as if a goal scored in extremis doesn't count as much as one in the body of the match.

Using evidence from their previous campaigns to argue the contrary, let me put Spain's 88th-minute winner against Croatia on Monday in context. Firstly, they keep on doing it – over and over again. Fifteen of the goals which qualified Spain for the last three major tournaments have been scored in the final ten minutes.

During their victorious UEFA EURO 2008 campaign there were three goals to win the group between the 88th and 92nd minutes – against Russia, Sweden and Greece – and another versus Russia in the semi-final.

©Getty Images

Jesús Navas breaks Croatia's resistance in Gdansk

In South Africa two years ago David Villa's decisive strike against Paraguay came with seven minutes left and Andrés Iniesta scored Spain's most famous goal, to make them world champions, in the 116th minute of the showpiece encounter with the Netherlands.

Twice in Group C here in Poland, Spain have scored, through Cesc Fàbregas and Jesús Navas, in the last seven minutes. I don't mean to labour the point, it's simply that it's a vital one if you want to get under the skin of this squad. Against Croatia, Spain, as Vicente del Bosque said himself, "didn't play brilliantly, got bogged down, but won".

Winning in that style, or confirming a victory with a late goal, is such a habitual thing for Spain that I once asked Carles Puyol about it. "Is it the fact that you do so many double sessions that makes you fresher at the end of games?"

"No," he told me. "The fact is that when we keep possession as much as we do and use it in a positive way to attack teams, they end up obliged to chase us and, routinely, we'll be mentally and physically a shade fresher when it's approaching half-time or, even more so, full time."

Analytically this is a key weapon in Spain's armoury. Croatia appeared to be a valiant rival, with Iker Casillas being required to confirm his San Iker (Saint Iker) nickname. But La Roja controlled 64% of the ball, made almost double the on-target number of chances and were still firing on all cylinders (mentally and physically) when the game and group leadership was decided.

They entertain, they are technically brilliant and they are admirable individuals – but this group are remorseless, dedicated winners. They'll take a bit of beating.

Last updated: 22/06/12 3.25CET

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