Neil Humphreys on why Spain no longer reign
(Juraj Kucka 17, Miroslav Stoch 87)
(Paco Alcacer 82)
How the mighty keep falling.
On an autumnal night back in October 2006, the Spaniards had no idea that they had just cleared the last obstacle to greatness.
Their loss against Sweden that night would be their last in qualifying - in both World Cup and European campaigns - until yesterday morning (Singapore time).
After eight long years and 37 games, mortality returned, as it often does, not with a bang, but a whimper.
The jubilant Slovakians played for a draw, but stole a 2-1 victory and celebrated like it was a trophy-winning bus parade.
From unbeatable to unreliable, Spain are on a rocky road to mediocrity.
Here are five reasons why.
1 CASILLAS CAN'T CUT IT ANYMORE
For so long he was the Peter Pan of football, the boy destined to ride the merry-go-round with Real Madrid and Spain forever.
The World Cup suggested the ride had stopped, but Casillas refused to get off.
Vicente del Bosque might now consider forcefully removing him.
At 33, the goalkeeper made a mockery of his birth certificate with a remarkable, one-handed reflex stop in the first half.
But age caught up with him moments later, when Juraj Kucka's free-kick flew past him. The ball bobbed and weaved, but Casillas went down like a punch-drunk victim of the Ali shuffle.
From a distance of 25 metres, the free-kick went straight down the middle. Casillas will blame the devilish swerve. Others will say his reflexes are rebelling against him. Both arguments miss the point.
David de Gea produces routine saves from such long-range efforts, no matter how cunningly struck.
In Brazil, there was a suggestion that Spain's demise was exaggerated by an unexpected number of goalkeeping errors.
The setting has changed, but it's the same old song for Casillas.
2 IT'S BROKEN, BUT DEL BOSQUE WON'T FIX IT
There were familiar statistics to ponder. Spain out-shot Slovakia 20 to five. They dominated possession, but luck supposedly eluded them.
They had an off-day. Spain suffer more off-days than a conniving employee with a box of forged MCs.
Their inherent weakness remains, only this time they lack the artistry to gloss over the shortcomings.
Del Bosque's possession football is all fumbling foreplay on a first date without a climax. They need to bring the sexy back.
Without Xavi Hernandez and David Villa, men raised on tiki-taka, Andres Iniesta cut an isolated figure, shunted to the left to support Cesc Fabregas and David Silva.
The English Premier League employs as fast, inventive, resourceful linkmen or inverted wingers.
At Manchester City, Silva cuts inside quickly and turn fullbacks. At Chelsea, Jose Mourinho utilises Fabregas' peerless passing range to maximise his swift, counter-attacking approach.
In comparison, Spain's play is ponderous, predictable and, if truth be told, rather tedious.
As Slovakia demonstrated, park the bus and the Spaniards hit a roadblock.
3 COSTA SOLD SHORT
He can't stop scoring for his club. He can't start scoring for country.
Diego Costa's nine goals for Chelsea contrast sharply with his none in six appearances for Spain.
The burly forward spurned a couple of chances, particularly a first-half header, but del Bosque's strategy negates the striker's strengths.
His most recent goal for Chelsea against Arsenal, a fine lob after a typical counter-attacking raid, underscored his enviable assets.
He blends pace and power so efficiently, making him a streamlined finisher of such consistency.
When he sits on the last defender's shoulder, he's every centre back's worst nightmare; a genuinely unsettling presence.
But Spain seldom set up that way.
Costa's nagging leg injury and a debilitating workload didn't help his cause in Slovakia, but he was mostly hamstrung by a counter-productive philosophy.
If Costa plays with his back to goal, he essentially turns his back on the game.
4 TACTICAL TAKEDOWN
In a late bid to chase victory, del Bosque took off right back Juanfran and introduced Santi Cazorla.
Slovakia's unlikely winner came five minutes later from the head of Miroslav Stoch, who was standing on the exact spot previously occupied by Juanfran.
Cazorla had gone walkabout.
More damningly, the goal resulted from a scintillating Slovakian counter-attack that culminated in Marek Hamsik's precise delivery; the kind of delivery Costa thrives on; the kind of direct counter-attack rarely used by La Roja.
5 LACKING LEADERS
Call it the Roy Keane effect, but the qualities and attributes of pitch leaders have been thoroughly dissected this week. Still, there is an intriguing correlation.
In an earlier interview, Gerard Pique admitted that he was terrified of Keane the player and still fearful enough to hide from Keane the TV pundit last year.
Yesterday, the Spanish centre back was an unwitting participant in a game of hide-and-seek with the omnipresent Hamsik, who battered Spain's backline. The defence looked rudderless.
The European champions have lost too many leaders. Carles Puyol exuded authority. Xavi's artistry and Villa's scoring record commanded respect and a degree of reverence.
More than a few good men have departed, taking their aura of artistic arrogance with them. The fear factor evaporated.
Since the World Cup, Spain have been looking for a charismatic leader, an inspirational creative fulcrum to guide them through the Euro 2016 campaign.
The position still hasn't been filled.
"We deserved to get at least a draw. We had the match under control. We were running out of energy towards the end. We lacked depth in our game. We tried to bring on players to change the flow, to create more chances and get into the area, but we could not manage it today."
- Spain coach Vicente del Bosque
"He's not getting the chances he’s getting with Chelsea. He's committed and, sooner or later, he will start scoring. We need to be patient with him."
- Spain defender Juanfran coming to the defence of under-fire striker Diego Costa
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