Battle with club-mate Ronaldo hands Arbeloa the chance to justify Spain spot
In an ideal world, Vicente del Bosque wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt be starting with Alvaro Arbeloa at right-back.
ThatÃ¢ÂÂs a harsh assessment of the Real Madrid full-backÃ¢ÂÂs ability, but itÃ¢ÂÂs true Ã¢ÂÂ had Carles Puyol been fit, he would have joined Gerard Pique at the back, with Sergio Ramos playing at right-back, where he played throughout SpainÃ¢ÂÂs tournament victories in Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010.
But Arbeloa has kept his place ahead of Atletico right-back Juanfran, and has started all four of SpainÃ¢ÂÂs matches at Euro 2012 so far. He is not a spectacular player, but instead a very functional one. His versatility means heÃ¢ÂÂs assured of his place in the squad Ã¢ÂÂ more so than some of SpainÃ¢ÂÂs bigger names, and besides, his experience means heÃ¢ÂÂs not overawed by the matches.
While he hasnÃ¢ÂÂt looked out of place playing for Liverpool and Real Madrid, heÃ¢ÂÂs struggled in a couple of SpainÃ¢ÂÂs matches so far. Defensively, there are no problems Ã¢ÂÂ and Spain enjoy such a large proportion of possession, Arbeloae rarely has to perform any particularly taxing tasks in his own third. But his passing has often been slow, frustrating SpainÃ¢ÂÂs creative players, who want the ball played into their feet more quickly.
Another problem has been his poor pressing. In SpainÃ¢ÂÂs opening game against Italy, Xavi Hernandez could be seen shouting at Arbeloa to move forward quicker, to pressure Emanuele Giaccherini in possession. Arbeloa eventually did so Ã¢ÂÂ but by the time he did, it was too late in XaviÃ¢ÂÂs book. This was slightly unfair on Arbeloa Ã¢ÂÂ he was a full-back in a back four, while Giaccherini was a wing-back, with more license to push high up the pitch. ArbeloaÃ¢ÂÂs pressing seemed leisurely in comparison, but he did have a different tactical role in the side.
Since then, his pressing has improved Ã¢ÂÂ but more interestingly, so has his distribution and his attacking positioning. Against France, for example, Laurent Blanc tried to shut down Jordi Alba by deploying two right-backs, Mathieu Debuchy and Anthony Reveillere, in tandem. That evidently failed, as DebuchyÃ¢ÂÂs slip allowed Alba to cross for Xabi AlonsoÃ¢ÂÂs opening goal.
But it was equally interesting what France did on the opposite flank. Franck Ribery, whether because of managerial instructions or pure laziness, had no interest in tracking Arbeloa. The Bayern winger stayed high up the pitch, the closest man in support of Karim Benzema. Arbeloa would have been informed by the Spanish coaching staff (who put considerable effort into scouting individual opponents) that Ribery had counter-attacked past Ukraine right-back Oleg Husiev in FranceÃ¢ÂÂs second match, setting up the winner. He could have been cautious.
Instead, Arbeloa motored forward, stretched the play, and provided the constant out-ball on the right, generally found by Xavi or Xabi AlonsoÃ¢ÂÂs long diagonal passes. He may not have been involved in play as often as Alba, but the distance on the passes shows that his positioning allowed Spain to switch the angle of attack, moving France across the pitch.
Of course, Arbeloa isnÃ¢ÂÂt as naturally attacking as Alba, a former winger. Ã¢ÂÂThe manager asks me to be aware when Jordi Alba attacks, to cover,Ã¢ÂÂ Arbeloa told Sid Lowe of the Guardian. Ã¢ÂÂI go on to the pitch focusing on trying to be defensively perfect. That's my first objectiveÃ¢ÂÂ¦the quality of your runs up the wing is more important than the quantity.Ã¢ÂÂ
Tonight will be the biggest test of ArbeloaÃ¢ÂÂs tournament, as he faces club teammate Cristiano Ronaldo. In ArbeloaÃ¢ÂÂs Liverpool days, he famously did a fine job on Lionel Messi when playing at left-back, taking advantage of MessiÃ¢ÂÂs tendency to come inside onto ArbeloaÃ¢ÂÂs stronger right foot. This challenge will be very different Ã¢ÂÂ the reverse, in fact.
It will be fascinating to see how Arbeloa plays against Ronaldo. Will he remain cautious and stay close to Gerard Pique, denying Ronaldo space in that zone? Does he stick very tight to Ronaldo, as the Czech RepublicÃ¢ÂÂs Theodor Gebre-Selassie did in PortugalÃ¢ÂÂs previous game? Or is he even braver, and do what he did against Ribery Ã¢ÂÂ pushing forward and trying to force Ronaldo back?
As Portugal play no true attacking midfielder, Sergio Busquets would be able to move across and cover.
Ronaldo is clever and varied with his positioning Ã¢ÂÂ against the Czechs he got away from the man-marking but drifting into the centre of the pitch much more frequently than he did against Holland.
Arbeloa is the most important player when it comes to stopping Ronaldo Ã¢ÂÂ but Spain will need to deal with him as a team.