If Forrest Gump reckoned life was like a box of chocolates, Luis Enrique says the selección are like a bottle of cava. The former Netherlands international Rafael van der Vaart has called Spain “horrible”, in comments that have provided a surprisingly significant part of the backdrop to their final group game against Slovakia on Wednesday night, but their coach insists there’s something good in there – if only they can find a way to get it out.
They may have to do so now before it is too late. Spain go into the match at La Cartuja in third place with two points, having scored a single goal in draws against Poland and Sweden, and Luis Enrique admitted that his level of “concern” was running at 7/10.
He also admitted that realism dictated that he was no longer bothered whether his team finish first, second or possibly even third. “The way things are, I’ll just settle for going through,” he said.
The good news for Spain is that even a draw would be enough – if Poland do not beat Sweden. It would be sufficient for Slovakia too. What matters now is still being in the competition but more is demanded of Spain. And Luis Enrique insisted that when it comes to his conviction they can still do something big, he would rate it 10/10. He also said that he had no intention of leaving the national team job until his contract runs out after the next World Cup.
That he was asked about his position underlines the pressure that Luis Enrique is under and reflects the disconnect between team and fans following the opening two games, both of which ended with whistles ringing round La Cartuja. But he said that he was not playing to save his job. “We’re playing for what we’re playing for – which is simply getting through the round,” he said.
“Concern is logical when you deserve more but don’t get it, but what I have to do is focus on what I can control, which is to motivate and get the best out of my players,” he added. “And I have the feeling that this is like a bottle of cava that is about to be uncorked. As soon as we do take that cork out, as soon as we produce a complete performance and get the kind of win that gives us confidence, our best version will come out.
“No one on the planet who knows football can say we were inferior to Poland or Sweden. Not when it came to the score, but in every other important element of the game we were better. Our objective against Slovakia is the same.
“What’s been missing is the finishing. It has been hard for the superiority to translate into goals, which is the hardest thing in football. Look at other teams, including some of the favourites, and see the number of chances they create [which is no higher] and they do score goals.”
The issue, he admitted, may be what stands before them. “They will play very defensively because the draw is good enough for them; let’s hope we can ‘open the can’ as early as possible,” he said, and that analysis was echoed by Marek Hamsik, who admitted that his team would have to “resist” as Sweden and Poland did. “We know they’re very good with the ball and we have to deny them space,” the Slovakia captain told the Spanish newspaper AS.
One man who does not agree with Luis Enrique’s optimistic analysis of Spain’s performances is Van der Vaart, who described them as “horrible”, saying: “All they do is pass from side to side.” Those comments drew a surprisingly vociferous response. The sharpest reply came from Koke. “Every day I go past a picture of him in at Las Rozas – it’s of Andrés Iniesta scoring a goal,” he said.
Sergio Busquets said: “He overstepped the mark. We can accept any criticism but that was a lack of respect. I don’t think it will provide motivation in this game but it might if we get through and play the Netherlands. Let’s hope so because that would mean we’re still in the tournament.”