World Cup 2018: Spain Preview
While Julen Lopetegui has done well to revitalise Spain, his sacking 48 hours before their opening game raises questions about their World Cup.
Vicente del Bosque will forever be a national hero for guiding Spain to their first ever World Cup and following it up by winning Euro 2012 in style, their third straight tournament in a row.
But it could be said that Spain weren’t ruthless enough in saying goodbye to the icons of South Africa with Xavi and Iker Casillas in particular not at their best in Brazil.
After a shock group stage exit in the last World Cup and a disappointing showing at Euro 2016, there was a sense that Spain needed rejuvenation and fresh ideas going into this tournament.
Julen Lopetegui was the most suitable candidate to freshen up the squad, as the manager of the Euro-winning Under-19s (2012) and Under-21s (2013), the latter of which featured no less than seven players now in the senior squad for Russia: David de Gea, Nacho, Dani Carvajal, Isco, Thiago, Koke and Rodrigo.
It’s a difficult balance to strike between trusting the old guard and bringing in new faces, but it’s something Lopetegui did well.
It certainly helps that he had a stellar pool of talent to choose from, made up largely from Spain’s big three, who have just come off winning the domestic double (Barcelona), the Champions League (Real Madrid) or the Europa League (Atletico Madrid), as well as dozens of capable players across Europe’s top five leagues.
However, with Wednesday’s shock announcement that Lopetegui was being released with immediate effect, all thought of progress has gone. The tournament now will be viewed in terms of survival for the Spaniards. Will they survive? Or has this spanner in the works thrown them off?
Route to Russia
With a favourable draw in UEFA qualifying, with Albania, Israel, Macedonia, and Liechtenstein unable to compete with such an international powerhouse, the group essentially became a race between Italy and Spain for the top spot.
Daniele De Rossi’s late equaliser at the J Stadium in Turin back in October 2016 ensured it would be a tightly contested battle, and it remained that way until the two sides met again on Spanish soil last September.
Before then it was difficult to judge how good Lopetegui’s team were due to the poor sides they were facing (there is only so much value in an 8-0 drubbing of Liechtenstein), but they made an emphatic statement by completely outclassing the Italians in a 3-0 win.
Isco, who had done so well to work his way into Zidane’s favoured line-up in Madrid’s Champions League win a couple of months prior, was sensational. He scored two goals and linked up well with Andres Iniesta.
That performance reasserted Spain’s status as one of the best international teams around, playing with a cohesion and understanding that few teams can match.
Lopetegui went unbeaten in charge of Spain, a tenure which included friendlies against England, Switzerland, Germany, France, Colombia, and Argentina.
Because of the depth in the squad, it’s difficult to predict exactly who interim coach Fernando Hierro will opt for in the decisive opening game against Portugal.
He will likely be inspired by Spain’s best performances – the 3-0 win over Italy and the 6-1 win over Argentina, both of which had Iniesta helping to assert control in midfield and Isco an uncontainable threat further ahead.
There are certain totemic figures that are certainties if fit: De Gea in goal, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique partnering each-other in central defence, Jordi Alba and Dani Carvajal in the full back positions, and Sergio Busquets screening the defence. Iniesta and Isco have performed so well for their country they are likely to get the nod, while David Silva has finally become a regular starter.
That leaves two remaining spots to be filled in midfield and further ahead, and will depend on how the manager approaches the opposition: as forwards, Rodrigo, Diego Costa and Iago Aspas all offer different things, but only one will be on the pitch at a time, and not choosing any is another option.
Koke is most likely to occupy a spot in the midfield three, but Saul and Thiago could be considered too.
Marco Asensio will likely appear from the bench as he often does for Real Madrid, but Lopetegui has shown faith in the youngster and given him starts in big games.
Key Player: Andres Iniesta
Alongside Ramos, Iniesta will be featuring in his fourth and final World Cup.
With his Barcelona teammates Busquets and Pique, too, the quartet are the ones that remain from Spain’s golden generation that triumphed in three consecutive tournaments between 2008 and 2012. David Silva contributed too, but wasn’t as much of an ever-present.
Departing Barcelona for Japanese club Vissel Kobe, this tournament will be his last at the highest level.
He leaves the club still at the top of his game, and has maintained an ability to excel on the biggest occasions, which he has showed for both club and country over the past year.
The Copa del Rey final against Sevilla and the matches against Juventus and Valencia, in particular, stand out for Barcelona, while he was sensational for Spain against Italy and Argentina.
No country on the planet produces as many world-class options in midfield, but even at the age of 34, nobody else can make Spain tick in quite the same way and offer the same level of control, tranquillity and incisiveness.
But he’s no longer a footballer capable of performing twice in quick succession, and the short, intensive madness of the World Cup will mean Hierro has to choose his battles carefully.
If tired, Iniesta can be a less effective presence, as he was in Barcelona’s Champions League exit to Roma. A repeat is the last thing Spain can afford.
Selecting Iniesta against Portugal would allow his coach to rest the aging Rolls Royce of a player in the subsequent group games. It will be important to keep him fresh for the knockout matches, but the wealth of midfield talent gives Hierro the option to do so.
It’s very unlikely that Spain will suffer another early exit, with this group a lot more forgiving than having to face Louis Van Gaal’s adept Netherlands and Jorge Sampaoli’s fervid Chile as they did in 2014.
But coming up against the European Champions Portugal is not the ideal opening game, and Fernando Santos has set a precedent for setting up an organised, frustrating defensive unit.
This is exactly the kind of team that could frustrate a side whose creativity is unquestionable but might lack the finishing touch, with Costa yet to convince in a Spain shirt.
But Portugal also have the tools to cause them problems. Andre Silva and Bernardo Silva are exceptionally talented while Cristiano Ronaldo coming up against Ramos will be one of the most fascinating individual duels of the tournament.
Spain should have the firepower to get past Morocco and Iran without too much trouble, but a loss against Portugal would put the pressure on.
Argentina needed an individual piece of brilliance from Lionel Messi to defeat Iran at the last World Cup. In Mehdi Benatia, Morocco boasts an exceptional centre-half.
While many will have had Spain down as potential winners of the World Cup in Russia, the news about Julen Lopetegui means many prediction sheets will have been confined to the dustbin of history as their compilers return to the drawing board.
This can go one of two ways: on the one hand, Spain could be buoyed by the disappointment of losing the manager that they tried to save and will push on to the final as many expected them to.
On the other hand, the impact of their betrayal by the RFEF could impel the Spaniards into a collapse of France at World Cup 2010 proportions.
With a big game coming against Portugal on Friday, we’ll have a much better indication which one of these two routes turns out to be the eventual one.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group B in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.