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World Cup qualifying recap: Wales are out, Spain are in; Croatia in playoffs

Wales lose a heartbreaker without Gareth Bale

Ukraine v Croatia - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Spain, Croatia, and Wales (who, didn’t have Gareth Bale on the pitch, but our Welsh Samurai was still obviously heavily invested in their match) all played World Cup qualifiers today. And while Spain were already strolling comfortably into Russia next summer; Croatia and Wales were playing at higher stakes.

Spain laboured through against Israel, to be sure. Sitting top of their group and with peace of mind, Lopetegui rolled out a non-traditional lineup, with Ramos and Nacho sitting at the back alongside Nacho Monreal and Cesar Azpilicueta; and Asensio started in the midfield alongside Jonathan Viera (making his national team debut), and an interesting double-pivot of Busquets and Illaramendi.

When I looked at that line-up, I anticipated a humdrum. Unfortunately, I got exactly what I asked for. The Busi - Illara duo was actually much more fluid offensively than I anticipated, with Illara playing the more advance of the two; but Israel played really well defensively, and limited Spain’s opportunities to long-range shots and little else.

They doubled-up on the wings, giving no breathing room to Asensio, Pedro, Azpilicueta, and Monreal on the flanks — rendering Spain’s overload attempts futile. Because of this, Aduriz was starved of service. I won’t lie — I didn’t even notice Aduriz in this match until he had to drop deep into midfield at the end of the first half. And in those rare moments that Spain did break through (typically through a moment of creativity and vertical vision from either Jonathan Viera or Illaramendi), Aduriz just wasn’t up to it:

It was an arduous match — a narrow 1 - 0 victory where Spain struggled to open Israel up. It will be remembered mostly by Illara taking matters into his own hands:

Some bullet points from my notebook

  • I enjoyed Jonathan Viera’s debut, and mostly his vision in creativity when Spain didn’t have much else to penetrate Israel’s organize defense. He didn’t always connect with his target, but, I’m just happy for him. He’s not going to get picked for the finalized squad, and this was a great moment for the Las Palmas midfielder.
  • Again, I have to go back to Israel’s defense. It was, very good. They defended in a 4-5-1, and did tremendously well to rotate around the pitch in a compact manner as Spain recycled position and switched it from the flanks. Their coverage was really good on the wings, and they stayed organized, mostly refusing to be opened by Spain’s patience.

  • Offensively, they didn’t have much, even though they looked confident. Ramos and Nacho had little to do, and they dealt well with whatever they had to. Nacho’s pace and solidity remains one of the most underrated talking points in European football.
  • Ramos was taken off at half-time for Iago Aspas, which was curious (though, mostly good, because, #rest), because it just led Spain to pack the midfield to try to find an opening and really rely on possession as their means of defending. It ended up just being more of the same, though. Aspas really hasn’t been himself this season playing under Unzue in a deeper role. Again, this game was mostly just about Illara’s brilliance rather than anything else.
  • Isco did eventually come on as a sub, and was a spark-plug, but for the most part, he over-dribbled and wasn’t really conducive to breaking the game open.
  • Asensio didn’t have a great game. He didn’t have much space on the left, and apart from the ‘should’ve been an assist to Aduriz’ pass, had trouble making key passes. He did, on a couple occassions, attempt to drop deep on the right behind Azpilicueta, but that didn’t bother Israel much.

Elsewhere, Croatia got their three points (and a Luka Modric assist!) with a 2-0 win over Ukraine. But with Iceland (unsurprisingly) beating Kosovo; Croatia will be entered into the playoffs, meaning both Modric and Kovacic will have to play two more games as another hurdle to get into the World Cup next summer.

Now, for the really heart-breaking news: A Bale-less Wales lost at home to Ireland, 0-1. This result means they have not qualified for the playoffs to get into the World Cup. This is devastating, to be sure. Wales had a fantastic opportunity to build on an impressive Euro 2016 run, but won’t have that chance now. Gutting for Bale, who’ll have to wait until 2022 for another crack.

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