Four years ago, when Xabi Alonso stepped up to convert a 27th-minute penalty for Spain in their World Cup opener against the Netherlands, there was a sense of inevitability. The reigning champions were unbeaten in their qualifying campaign and had the spine of that all-conquering side at their disposal.
But then everything changed. The Netherlands scored five goals in 36 minutes and Spain’s shield of invincibility, first breached by Brazil in the Confederations Cup final the summer before (a defeat written off as a blip), now lie in tatters.
Vicente del Bosque, who had been coaching the team on autopilot, was forced to take the controls and did not understand what to do. He fumbled through the subsequent 2-0 defeat to Chile and, by the time he steadied the trajectory with a meaningless win against Australia, it was too late. Spain went crashing out.
The quest for continuity
Remarkably, the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) waited another two before finally replacing the veteran coach.
Their choice of successor raised a few eyebrows, but Julen Lopetegui had previously spent five years working as an RFEF man, leading two Spanish youth teams to Euro Championship glory.
Many of the players he worked with back then are now a part of the senior squad. De Gea, Montoya, Illarramendi, Bartra, Koke, Morata, Isco, Moreno, Saul, Muniain, Carvajal, Rodrigo and Paco Alcacer all worked under the Basque boss at either U-19 or U-21 level.
Seven of those were involved in his first two matches in charge of the national team, and a handful have made it on the plane to Russia.
If anyone has the credentials to bring the next generation of players through, it is Lopetegui. And he still has the likes of Iniesta, Ramos, Pique, Busquets and Silva at his disposal to ease the transition period.
Spain remain unbeaten on his watch and their only dropped points at a competitive level came via a 1-1 draw in Italy during World Cup qualifying.
They may not be back to their 2010 best, but Spain have been going about their business in impressive fashion, free from the expectation that weighed them down four years ago. This time, they will attack from a lower status and that could suit them.
There are still issues to resolve - particularly up front. Diego Costa has always felt like a square peg in this team while Iago Aspas and Rodrigo have made just five competitive international starts between them.
The exclusion of Alvaro Morata was met with disbelief in some quarters. However, Isco, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez are all capable of operating in a front three.
The technician has toyed with different formations, but it is likely that he will favour the 4-3-3 that we saw in the 6-1 friendly win against Argentina rather than the 4-2-3-1 that was deployed in the recent draw against Switzerland.
Potential route to glory
The key game will be the opener against Portugal in Sochi. This is the toughest game they will play in Group B and could set the tone for the tournament.
The two sides last met in the semi-finals of Euro 2012 with Spain coming out on top via a penalty shootout following a 0-0 draw. La Furia Roja won the tournament beating Italy 4-0 in the final. Portugal’s last competitive win against Spain came on home soil at Euro 2004.
Lopetegui’s men will then face Iran for the first time in their history and Morocco for the first time since 1961. If they can avoid defeat against Portugal, Spain will have the chance to build momentum in the next two fixtures and top the group.
That would set them up with a Round of 16 clash against the winner of Group A, most likely Russia or Uruguay. From there, a potential quarter-final clash against Argentina would interest - the recent 6-1 thrashing fresh in the minds of both teams.
Next up could be Germany (who have beaten Spain just once in five meetings over the last 18 years) followed by a final against Brazil or France. The defeat to Brazil in 2014 was Spain’s first since the 1986 World Cup (although they only met three times in that period), while France have beaten Spain just once in their last seven meetings.
Combine all this with Spain’s domination of European club football over the last few years and you have a squad full of players with a winning mentality. If they can prevail in the Iberian showdown on June 15, the two-time European Champions and 2010 World Cup winners could go all the way again.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group C in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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