South Africa are just one game away from reaching the second phase of a FIFA finals for the first time in their history. A solitary point against European champions Spain in their final Group A encounter at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009 would safeguard their passage to the last four, though even a defeat may not deny them, depending on what happens between section rivals Iraq and New Zealand.
La Roja go into the match having already booked their place in the semi-finals, though they do need at least a point to ensure top spot and therefore avoid a last-four clash with the winners of a fiercely contested Group B. Moreover, Vicente del Bosque's charges are within touching distance of two world records: drawing level with Brazil's run of 35 unbeaten internationals; and extending the record of 14 consecutive victories currently jointly held with Australia, France and the Seleção.
Spain-South Africa, 20 June, 20.30 (local time), Free Bloemfontein.
Ever since touching down on South African soil, Spain supremo Del Bosque has made it clear he intends to use all the players at his disposal. And with a semi-final berth in the bag, now would seem a logical time to give his second-string a welcome run-out, just as his predecessor Luis Aragones did for the third and final group game at UEFA EURO 2008. Indeed, La Selección could register up to eight changes from the team that wore down Iraq's stubborn defence though the hosts should not expect an easy ride. Quite apart from the reserves' desire to prove their worth, the team Spain ‘B' beat 2-1 at last summer in Austria and Switzerland were none other than EURO 2004 winners Greece.
Meanwhile, the South Africans' 2-0 win over New Zealand sent a wave of euphoria around a country that is currently living and breathing the FIFA Confederations Cup, as well as boosting the confidence of the Bafana Bafana squad. "Now I've got to bring my players back down to earth," warned coach Joel Santana. "They need to clear their minds before we can put on a good display against Spain. We're going to go toe-to-toe with them," added the Brazilian strategist, who is expected to start with the same eleven that beat the Kiwis.
The Liverpool goalkeeper and Everton midfielder could find themselves up against each other in Saturday's clash, thus adding a hint of the Merseyside derby to proceedings. Pienaar and the Toffees have enjoyed a good 2009 against their Red rivals, drawing 1-1 in the league and FA Cup at Anfield and recording a memorable 1-0 win at Goodison Park in an FA Cup replay on 4 February. The flamboyant custodian, for this part, will be determined to enjoy a rare start for La Roja and improve on a record of just six goals conceded in his 14 previous appearances.
The only prior meeting between the two countries' senior sides was a fairly recent affair and included several players still in their respective national team set-ups here at South Africa 2009. Starting for La Selección were Iker Casillas and Xavi, with Carles Puyol on the bench, while Bafana Bafana lined up with Aaron Mokoena and Macbeth Sibaya and the aforementioned Pienaar awaiting his chance in the dugout.
Did you know?
Since 1997, Basque chef Javier Arbizu has accompanied La Roja across the globe, with his much-loved potato omelette just one of the recipes that has helped players, coaches and officials feel at home on long trips away. And though the quality of the meat and fish available in South Africa means Arbizu has not needed to bring supplies, he will not have forgotten to bring some of Spanish national staple jamón serrano (cured ham): a sure-fire way to boost morale in the camp, whatever happens on the field.
What they said
"We still don't know if we're better off finishing first or second but let's make this clear: we're aiming to finish first. I don't know how South Africa will set their stall out, but I hope they play like Iraq. That way you know chances will come and when you're creating chances you're bound to put one away." Spain coach Vicente del Bosque.
"This is a great game for us, not only because it could seal our passage to the semi-finals but because it's a fantastic opportunity to play against one of the best teams on the planet. We've got huge respect for the quality in the Spanish side, but in a game like this we can't show fear and set out only to defend: we're going to go out there to play our normal game." South Africa coach Joel Santana.