The lesson for the Republic of Ireland on Tuesday night was the same that so many teams before them had learned – you can pack in as many defenders as you like, but eventually, Spain will get you.
That was the case at Yankee Stadium where the patience and illimitable talent of La Furia Roja earned them a comprehensive 2-0 victory over the Republic of Ireland. The Boys in Green fought valiantly, managing a few quality chances, but were undone by a clinical Roberto Soldado volley in the 68th minute and a perfectly carved through-pass by Santi Cazorla that Juan Mata stabbed home in the 88th minute.
The match was fairly tepid for the opening 12 minutes before some Matador-like footwork by Ireland right midfielder Seamus Coleman left Jordi Alba in the dust. The move put the Everton man clear through to the by-line but his shaped cross was overrun by striker Conor Sammon, whose sprawling bicycle sailed over the bar.
The half-chance shocked Spain to life and for the next 15 minutes, Ireland hardly saw the ball. Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Sergio Busquets, Pedro and David Villa wove their runs in and out of each other’s space, painting the field with short one and two-touch passes that left Giovanni Trapattoni’s men clutching their ankles. It was tiki-taka football in its purist form.
Credit to Ireland, though, as they worked hard defensively, tucking the outside midfielders inside and forming a seemingly impenetrable eight man front. When the Irish did manage to recover possession, nerves set in and the typical response was to lump the ball up the park, a temporary reprieve to death by a thousand cuts. And in the 27th minute, the tactic nearly earned them a goal as Spain center-back Gerard Pique was too lax in his touch and Sammon sniped the ball off the Spaniard’s foot.
The Derby County striker tore down the left side of the field and cut into the box uncontested but the Irishman had too much speed and not enough composure to create his angle. Victor Valdes closed the striker down and Sammon’s effort skirted wide of the far post.
Spain responded with another flurry of passes before Xavi ripped a shot from 24 yards out that went right into the arms of David Forde. Vicente del Bosque’s men continued the onslaught with an array of outside shots and scoop-over passes for Pedro and Villa. In the 32nd minute the two looked poised to break the deadlock as Villa cut in from the left side of the box, skirted past Darren O’Dea and Paul McShane, and found Pedro but the 25 year old’s sliding effort went just wide.
Five minutes later Villa found his way through again but Forde made himself big to make the save. In the 41st minute Pedro showed his class yet again, collecting the ball at the penalty spot, touching right and then going behind his body and to the left before cracking a pill that crashed off the bar.
The second half began much like the first half with both sides trading possession at midfield. Ireland’s defending remained staunch and for some time it appeared Trapattoni’s side might be thinking about pulling off something special. Spain continued to enjoy the lion’s share of the possession but lacked the final entry pass to get in free on goal. Almost out of frustration, Xavi, Iniesta, Villa and Pedro all hammered shots from outside that either sailed wide or failed to trouble Forde.
In the 68th minute Spain got their opener as Alvaro Arbeloa danced on the top of the 18 and found Roberto Soldado, on for Villa, to hammer home a first time volley into the bottom corner. Two minutes later Soldado nearly had his brace as Mata, on for Xavi, played a beautiful curling ball between McShane and Sean St. Ledger. Soldado raced onto it, nipping a one-touch finish that beat the Ireland keeper but inched wide of the post.
Ireland continued to fight, however, and their hard work nearly paid off in the 80th minute when James McClean found himself through down the left flank. Like Sammon, the Sunderland man sped into the box on the left side but failed to create an angle, instead opting to smash the ball on goal. And it nearly worked but for a reflexive kick save by Iker Casillas. On the ensuing corner Casillas tipped McClean’s header off the bar and it fell to St. Ledger, who poked home from 5 yards out sending Ireland supporters into hysteria. But the linesman had adjudged Simon Cox to be in an offsides position and replays showed it was the correct call.
Ireland’s dreams of a comeback were dashed in the 88th minute when Cazorla sliced an inch-perfect pass in between St. Ledger and O’Dea that Mata raced on to and hit first time, putting the ball past substitute keeper Darren Randolph. It was a classy link-up between the two Premier League men and their gleeful celebration reflected the difficulty of their work.
With the victory in hand Spain now head down to Brazil for the Confederations Cup while Ireland travel back across the pond for some time off before pre-season training begins.