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HEART OF FOOTBALL

Trust Iniesta to direct a new tiki-taka to light up tepid Euro

Not for the first time in the past decade, Spain have given joy to a dried-up tournament. And not for the first time Andres Iniesta, the man hailed as Saint Andres, is at the heart of it.

Shortly after half-time in Nice, on the south coast of France, Iniesta orchestrated a wave of beauty that washed over the Turkish team.

Twenty-one passes flowed from foot to foot, and six of them passed through Iniesta. The Turks could not track his movement, let alone intercept him.

Iniesta's coup de grace was to thread the ball through the remnants of Turkey's back line. His Barcelona team-mate Jordi Alba read the pass, and set up Alvaro Morata to strike the third goal and finish off Turkey.

The scoring was over because Spain effectively declared at 3-0. Turkey's manager Fatih Terim raged about his players "throwing in the towel". Turks in the crowd whistled derisively at one of their players (also a Barcelona player, Arda Turan) and let off fireworks towards the end.

Iniesta is sitting in the centre, where Xavi reigned. He's orchestrating like Xavi orchestrated. But Iniesta is Iniesta, he can't entirely erase from his personality the instincts to make spectacular dribbles, or split a defence with slide-rule precision.

But, while worrisome in terms of what is supposed to be watertight anti-terrorist security at the stadium entrances, this was not the destruction of Russian and the English hooligans. It was also not the internecine flare-up between rival Croatian fans that disfigured Friday's earlier game between Croatia and the Czech Republic.

No indeed. There was a spell towards the end when the Spanish supporters started a Mexican wave, and the Turks actually took up the wave and kept it moving around the stadium.

Spaniards then stood and applauded Turks for having the sportsmanship to share in the fun while their team were so outclassed on the field.

There has been much more of that over in the United States, where American audiences were thrilled by a Lionel Messi hat-trick in Chicago, and by an extraordinary solo goal by Mexico's Jesus "Tecatito" Corona - a "golazo" - in which he took on all by himself the entire Venezuelan defence in Houston.

Americans are not used to seeing the real thing, the beauty of Latin American football even if this Copa America Centenario is actually an excuse to play an out-of-sequence and out-of-continent extra South American Championship in the land of the big bucks.

But don't let me be cynical again. There has been more than enough of that in the world of sport this month, and for too many months.

Back to the joy, and the significance of it. And back to Spanish football.

After the total flop of the 2014 World Cup, Spain did something few other nations do nowadays. It persuaded the coach, Vincent del Bosque, to remain and to rebuild.

Del Bosque said on Friday: "From 2008 to now, we have lost some of the most important players in the history of Spanish football. We are on the right path but we haven't won anything yet."

Those important players include Iker Casillas, the ageing but still available goalkeeper, now replaced by David de Gea. They include the he-man central defender Carles Puyol, the midfield duo Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez, and the strike force of David Villa and Fernando Torres.

Replacing that core of the team might finish most countries. More than any other, Xavi was the key player, the midfield passing master who was like a metronome of consistency throughout a decade.

Iniesta was at his side, but Iniesta was free to bewitch opponents with his dancing footwork, his quicksilver darts and his ability to pick a pass higher up the field from where Xavi controlled the pace.

Now, though, Iniesta is sitting in the centre, where Xavi reigned. He's orchestrating like Xavi orchestrated. But Iniesta is Iniesta, he can't entirely erase from his personality the instincts to make spectacular dribbles, or split a defence with slide-rule precision.

We all saw that Alba was offside in the build-up to that third goal. Should we care? Should we want to annul the finest team goal we are likely to see this summer because one of nine men who took part in the move was momentarily offside? Not me, thank you.

Del Bosque said afterwards that his team have won nothing yet at this event, but that they were effective in finishing off their creativity.

Effectiveness is paramount. Italy in two games so far have won both by absorbing the attacks of opponents and hitting on the break.

Fine, it's a legitimate way to win a title. The breakthrough goals by Emanuele Giaccherini against Belgium, and by the Brazilian-born Eder against Sweden, were acts of beauty in a team who pragmatically know how to win.

Spain give us more because their beautiful technical style is like water on a parched tongue. And Spain, at this moment, are making the strides that Germany, the world champions, are not doing.

Both are national teams that play, or played, the "false No. 9" tactic of not really having a centre-forward but hitting opponents by stealth.

It is, if you like, the Pep Guardiola system devised at Barca. I love it, but there comes a time when others work out how to defend against it.

Both Germany and Spain brought to this Euro much more orthodox, target-man players. Germany have kept their "No. 9" Mario Gomez on the bench, persisting with the small, and thus far not very successful, Mario Gotze.

It is as if Joachim Low cannot bring himself to be retro and to put in an old-fashioned central striker. Maybe Germany 0 Poland 0 will make him think again.

Del Bosque, by contrast, put two new attackers into his line-up. Nolito plays on the left, a bustling forager in the mould of David Villa.

Up top, Alvaro Morata, 1.9m tall, is more of an old-fashioned target man. Nolito scored against Turkey, Morata scored twice.

Spain have moved on, without sacrificing their mesmerising keep-ball strength. Germany will probably go through as well, but take a while longer to wake up and smell the coffee.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 19, 2016, with the headline 'Trust Iniesta to direct a new tiki-taka to light up tepid Euro'. Print Edition | Subscribe