Centre-backs Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique have put club-based rivalry aside to form a partnership for Spain, writes Ian Hawkey.
Euro 2012: In defence of a nation
Around 10 minutes into the second-half of their quarter-final against France last Saturday, the holders of the European Championship began an extended tease of their opponents, who by that stage were 1-0 down in a match that finished a comfortable two-goal victory for Spain.
The tease consisted of the Spanish passing efficiently to one another for well over a minute, circulating possession between nine different players, in an area stretched across the width of the pitch but not close enough to the France goal to immediately threaten it.
As this dance of short and medium-range exchanges went on, no Frenchman could dispossess the polished passers in red jerseys. Keeping the ball is Spain's most assured defence mechanism, and even their most rugged defenders are astute at it.
At one point in the elongated quadrille of pass-and-move there was a tricky backheel and pirouettes from Sergio Ramos, who had moved briefly into an advanced midfield position. It was if the robust Ramos wanted to remind watchers that, though he is not as nimble as an Andres Iniesta or a David Silva, nor as confident a distributor of the ball as Xabi Alonso or Xavi, he has the light feet and balance of a toreador as well as the athletic qualities to command at centre-back.
Spain have conceded one goal so far at Euro 2012, and achieved that impressive statistic with a defence reshaped since they triumphed at the last European championship, and even since they lifted the World Cup two summers ago.
Of the back four who won Euro 2008, Sergio Ramos is the one survivor, but he played at right-back then, as he would in South Africa in 2010. His partner at the heart of the Spanish rearguard, Gerard Pique, only won the first of his 43 caps in 2009. The major missing presence in this tournament is Carles Puyol, the big-haired, huge-hearted Barcelona captain, ruled out because of knee surgery.
Puyol and Pique are close friends, so united that Pique, talking after the win over France, revealed to reporters he has had Puyol regularly on the phone giving him advice, reminding him, as he does whenever they play alongside one another for Barcelona and Spain, to keep up his concentration levels.
Puyol is not alone in thinking Pique, for all his talent, sometimes suffers moments of distraction.
The partnership with Ramos, inevitably, has less of the tried-and-tested synchronicity of the Puyol-Pique axis. Pique and Ramos come from rival clubs, evidently. Pique is a lifelong Barcelonista, having joined the junior ranks as a child, leaving briefly for a spell at Manchester United; his grandfather was a director at Barca. Sergio Ramos is vice-captain of Real Madrid. He and Pique have had some hot-tempered confrontations in club contests.
At a press conference with the national team a couple of years ago, they had a frosty, very public exchange of views: Pique spoke Catalan, the language of his native region, Catalonia, to a reporter. Ramos, stern-faced, then asked if he could, in that case, talk not in Spanish but in Andaluz, seeing as he is from Andalucia, in the south-west of Spain.
Puyol had been the natural leader of Spain's defence for many years. Pique, though 24, has a leader's self-belief; but Sergio Ramos, 26, has twice as many caps as Pique and no shortage of self-regard. Both are comfortable on the ball, so you tend to see not just Pique taking responsibility for the first pass out of defence, a key manoeuvre in Spain's tactical approach.
Ramos, with his background as an attacking full-back – the position he has until recently occupied mostly for Real – also likes to move forward with the ball at his feet.
One thing they share, and will discuss in detail ahead of the semi-final against Portugal, is an intimate knowledge of the striker who most demands they be extra-vigilant tonight. Pique was a colleague of Cristiano Ronaldo's at United: they got on well there. Ramos has been a teammate, at Madrid, of Ronaldo's for three seasons.
"If we manage to stop him, it will be a collective effort," Pique warns, "it is always going to be. As a defender up against Cristiano one-on-one, you need to make sure there's plenty of help and always somebody covering."
He is, he added, learning to anticipate better how to cover and help his new partner. "Sergio and I are developing our understanding more and more with each game."
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