Spain 1 South Korea 0
Casillas, Arbeloa, Pique, Puyol, Xavi, Busquets, Alonso, Pedro, David Silva, Torres, Villa.
A pretty good eleven, I’m sure you will agree. This was just the stellar lineup sat on the substitute’s bench as many of Spain’s second string got the opportunity to impress ahead of the World Cup. Sevilla’s Jesus Navas seized it to stake his claim to be a match-winner in South Africa.
The inclusion of Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas for this clash against the Koreans said everything about the importance of match fitness with the Swiss on the horizon. Iniesta missed the latter stages of Barcelona’s La Liga season while Fabregas was also unavailable for Arsenal, albeit for a shorter period.
Spain lined up with Liverpool’s Jose Reina in goal, just hours after the Anfield club parted company with Rafael Benitez by the ubiquitous mutual consent. The outfield players were arranged in a 4-3-3 formation, used extensively by Barca but not so often by Spain. In the absence of Torres and Villa, Vicente del Bosque utilised 6 foot 5 Athletic Bilbao striker Fernando Llorente up front with Valencia’s Juan Mata and the livewire Navas on either side.
Llorente’s team-mate at San Mames, the Manchester City target Javi Martinez, started in the holding midfield role with Iniesta and Fabregas ahead of him. The defence comprised Real Madrid duo Sergio Ramos and Raul Albiol along with Valencia’s Carlos Marchena and Villarreal left-back Joan Capdevila.
Understandably, Spain dominated possession from the start. Navas in particular began very brightly on the right-hand side, causing 33-year-old former Tottenham man Lee Young-Pyo plenty of problems without creating much from which Llorente could profit.
South Korea enjoyed the best early chance, Kim Jung-Woo cutting in from the left and arrowing a long-range shot narrowly wide of Reina’s goal.
Despite their comfort with the ball at feet, it was actually set pieces that appeared to provide Spain’s greatest chance of opening the scoring in the early stages. Ramos joined the Athletic pair Llorente and Martinez in posing a genuine threat from corners and free kicks.
From open play, shots on goal were in short supply but fine play down the left from Capdevila and Mata presented the returning Fabregas with a real opportunity ten minutes before the break. The Arsenal captain had time to look up and place his effort from the edge of the Korean box but saw the ball rebound off the top of the bar.
With virtually the last kick of the first half, the South Koreans nearly took the lead through Park Chu-Young after confusion in the Spanish defence. Reina did well to block twice, first from the Monaco forward and then again from Bolton’s Lee Chung-Yong when the ball broke loose in a central position.
It was Reina’s final action. Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes replaced the Liverpool man between the posts for the Spaniards, winning his long-awaited first cap in the process. All eyes were now focused on the Blaugrana number one, interested to see how he would deal with the dangerous South Korean counter-attacking threat, especially without the familiar faces of Pique and Puyol ahead of him.
The Koreans nearly fashioned some danger for Valdes early in the second period when a long ball caught Albiol flat-footed, but Chu-Young was unable to compose himself.
Surely the most important aspect of this friendly, in del Bosque’s eyes anyhow, was that Iniesta and Fabregas emerged unscathed. Spain are running out of time in their attempts to get their key players match-fit for the finals, with Torres still to feature in a warmup game. The main news was that both the Barcelona idol and their well-publicised target survived a series of knocks, performing well in a crowded midfield before being replaced on the hour mark.
In their places and those of Mata and Llorente, del Bosque brought on a further trio of Barca players in the form of Xavi, Pedro and new signing David Villa, along with Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso.
Of course, the other primary purpose of this encounter with a hard-working South Korean side was to allow fringe players to shine. Even if it is too late to work their way into the first choice lineup, valuable substitute roles are still up for grabs at this stage.
There are different types of impact player. The towering Llorente is an obvious alternative to bring on in an attempt to add physical power to a glittering forward line. On the flanks, Navas and Pedro have the pace to damage tiring defences in the final minutes. The Sevilla winger has just enjoyed arguably his best season to date, while the success of the Tenerife-born Barcelona attacker cannot be disputed.
The rangy Javi Martinez certainly impressed, despite playing in the most hotly-contested position of all. Adaptable to both the holding role and as one of the more advanced central midfielders, the young Athletic player furthered his case for involvement after edging out Villarreal’s Marcos Senna for a place in the squad.
In contrast, Llorente struggled to impose himself and, although he had just thirty minutes to make his mark, Pedro Rodriguez was similarly unable to replicate his explosive club form in a brief appearance.
With a quarter of an hour remaining, Villa struck a dipping effort on goal from just outside the box but straight at substitute goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong. Seconds later, the Barca striker took a fine pass from Xavi, a sight to which we will surely become accustomed in the near future, and his shot took a slight deflection to end up wide of the right post.
Valencia’s David Silva replaced Martinez with ten minutes left as Spain’s more established stars showed their class to worry the South Korean back line. They had chances of their own, though, particularly when centre-back Lee Jung-Soo rose above Valdes to head wide from a free kick after 83 minutes.
The breakthrough finally came at the other end shortly after, from another of those looking to confirm himself as a World Cup match-winner. Navas, lively and energetic but often wasteful, at last found a finish of real quality, firing a fierce long-range drive into the top right corner of the Korean net with five minutes of the game to go.
Positives for del Bosque are clear. Navas added the end product to ally with his remarkable pace and stamina, while Martinez was quietly effective in allowing Iniesta and Fabregas to roam forward. Despite another cagey performance, not without the odd scare at the back, Navas and Martinez were the big winners in a narrow victory.