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Sink or swim: Can the Spanish Armada Triumph in Russia?

The Glory years 2008-2012

As Fernando Torres dinked an advancing Jens Lehmann to end a much awaited 44-year long trophy drought in an eventual 1-0 victory against Germany in the Euro 2008 final; the 14.6 million Spanish viewers across the globe welcomed the birth of a dynasty. Inarguably, Spanish supremacy had set an undeniable precedent as the revered La Roja cruised to triumphs in the following European Championships (2008, 2012) and World Cup (2010), becoming the first ever national team to win three successive titles in footballing history

Under the initial tutelage of coach Luis Aragones and then, Vicente Del Bosque, the Spaniards were a true embodiment of the beautiful game with the advent of their iconic “tiki-taka” style, an extension of Dutch legend Johan Cruyff’s “Total Football” philosophy which was characterised by an unimagined sense of positional freedom, high levels of possession and draining oppositions; implemented during his time at Barcelona, as both a player and manager. It was a drastic shift from their deep- rooted “La Furia” ideology, which prioritised a no-nonsense, physical and route-one system which concurred with dictator Francisco Franco’s vision of an authoritarian and militaristic Spain.

The Spanish at their peak. (Photo credits Youtube)

Heralded by various commentators and experts as the greatest national side of all time, the Spanish married technicality with tenacity. Euro 2012 is a perfect example of this holy matrimony, with the La Roja dispatching 12 and conceding only a single goal (against Italy) throughout the tournament.

Such unparalleled standards of synergy were on show as the nation consistently churned out the cream of the crop in each and every position, notably in the centre of the park. Xavi and Andres Iniesta were at the fulcrum of this Spanish ascendancy, alongside the likes of midfield maestros such as Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Marcos Senna, David Silva, and Cesc Fabregas. Captained by Iker Casillas in goal, the Spaniards had a rock-solid defence that was spearheaded by Carlos Puyol and gradually, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, with reliant, if not extraordinary full backs in Carlos Marchena, Joan Capdevila, Alvaro Arbeloa, and Jordi Alba. Fernando Torres and David Villa were the epitome of striking extraordinaire for La Roja, with the latter finishing as the nation’s highest-ever goalscorer with 59 goals in 97 matches. While the duo were at their brilliant best in Euro 2008, their partnership faded in the following World Cup in 2010 and Euro 2012. However, both frontmen lead the line in fine fashion in these tournaments.

What sets Spain’s class of 2008-2012 apart from the rest was that they did not fail to live up to expectations, as the famed golden generations of Portugal and England, for instance. In fact, the Spaniards over-exceeded expectations to a stupendous extent.

The Slump 2014-2016

However, as all good things come to an end, so did La Roja’s reign as the best team on the planet as Jupp Heynckes laid forth a blueprint on how to dismantle the tiki-taka system against Barcelona in a two-legged Champions League semi-final, as Bayern Munich emerged 5-1 winners. The defending World Cup champions at the time were outplayed, outran and outthought by Louis Van Gaal’s Holland in a 5-1 demolition job in their inaugural group stage match in 2014. Things turned from bad to worse as an Alexis Sanchez-inspired Chilean side ran the Spaniards ragged in a 2-0 victory, which meant one of the outright tournament favorites were eliminated at the group stage.

World
A distraught Spanish team, after being eliminated from 2014 World Cup. (Photo credits – Ndtv Sports)

Euro 2016 proved to be another unsuccessful tournament for Spain as they petered out of the competition in the round of 16 with a 2-0 defeat at the hands of a meticulously-drilled Italian side that achieved a stranglehold over their counterparts.

La Roja’s glory days became a thing of the past and Vicente Del Bosque called quits on a decorated career as Spanish boss and in came Julen Lopetegui as his replacement.

The current Spain manager was an unexpected appointment at the time, with no proven track record at a major football club. Porto was the 52-year old’s most recognizable managerial experience, however, Lopetegui endured a rather uninspiring spell at the Estadio Do Dragao.

With the likes of Unai Emery, Diego Simeone, and Pep Guardiola being pipped as favorites for the Spanish top job, it was out of the blue to see the ex-Rayo Vallecano coach putting pen to paper in July 2016.

A New Dawn

Julen Lopetegui has muted these premonitions to a certain extent during his short stint as La Roja boss after leading the Spaniards to an exemplary qualifying campaign. Drawn alongside the likes of Italy, Albania, Israel, Macedonia, and Liechtenstein in UEFA Group G, the ex-Real Madrid goalkeeper had overcome his first hurdle with ease as the Spanish stormed to 28 points from a possible 30 in ten matches.

While the English will tell you that the qualifying campaign is not a real reflection of a team’s projected performance at the tournament, as the famous sporting expression goes, “you can only beat what’s in front of you.”

Toying with different combinations in all areas of the pitch, Lopetegui experimented with the side to the fullest, a trend that is prevalent during the pre-tournament fixtures to discover the ideal starting eleven to be fielded for the upcoming competition. The Spaniards were drawn alongside the likes of Euro 2016 holders Portugal, Morocco, and Iran in Group B of World Cup 2018.

Rodrigo of Spain celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier between Spain and Albania at Estadio (Jose Rico Perez on October 6, 2017 in Alicante, Spain.Getty Images)

Portugal boss Fernando Santos labeled the two-time European champions as “natural favorites” and expectedly so. La Roja have the perfect mix of youthful exuberance in players such as Marco Asensio and Alvaro Odriozola, and seasoned champions in veterans Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos that catapult them as one of the strongest teams in the hat.

While the Seleccao are under the helm of one of the greatest ever players in the history of the game in Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese have a serious lack of strength in depth and are over-reliant on their talismanic skipper. The four-time Ballon d’Or winner does not have the luxury of a Neymar who is also the focal point of his side. However, the PSG poster boy has a supporting cast of world-class talents such as Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, and Gabriel Jesus to name a few.

Morocco have qualified for their first World Cup since 1998 and 36th ranked Iran have secured a place for the second time in their history. While it must be acknowledged that their stories are nothing less than fairytales, Group B of World Cup 2018 is the start and end of a potential wilderness for the minnows.

Can Spain reclaim the World Cup this year?

After the 2017-18 domestic season drew to a close, the Spanish Football Federation announced their 23-man squad on Monday. A total of eleven players have been axed from Spain’s squad from the World Cup in Brazil which has further signaled the time for change that La Roja are in search for.

Spain’s squad for the upcoming World Cup via Bleacher Report Football

Unlike the jaw-dropping exclusions of Mauro Icardi and Radja Nainggolan for Argentina and Belgium respectively, Lopetegui has rightfully rewarded meritocracy as his primary criteria. Chelsea’s Spanish contingent of Pedro, Cesc Fabregas, Marcos Alonso, and Alvaro Morata have missed the bus to Russia. While the former two have a combined 174 caps for the national team, they simply have not been up to scratch this campaign after the Blues’ underwhelming title defence in the Premier League. The other two cases are slightly more complicated in nature.

Marcos Alonso has rejuvenated himself as the best Left-Back in England since his return to the Premier League after stints at Bolton Wanderers and Sunderland (on loan). The former Fiorentina defender sealed a spot in the 2018 PFA Team of the Year, which lays emphasis on his levels of consistency in a team that has been patchy and disappointing over several stages this season.

As a result, Alonso’s absence is not warranted considering he has had a superior season to compatriot, Nacho Monreal, who will also act as a backup to Jordi Alba at Left-Back. A strong case can be made for the Arsenal man’s versatility and tactical malleability, with the Gunners switching between a three and four-man defence, and Monreal largely being deployed as a centre-half, which is not the 32-year old’s natural position. However, the former Real Madrid Castilla product would certainly have felt hard done by not making the cut for the biggest stage in football. Alvaro Morata’s inclusion in La Roja’s squad for World Cup 2018 was implied at the start of their qualification rounds in 2016.

After a season on the bench for Los Blancos in which certain sections of the Spanish press called for the Real Madrid Castilla graduate to leapfrog Karim Benzema as a starter alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, fans and experts alike were of the opinion that Morata would set the world alight in a blue shirt. However, the 75 million man has been shocking for Antonio Conte’s side this season, with an unimpressive return of 10 goals and 6 assists in 30 appearances for the Blues.

Spain’s Shot At Renaissance

A self-proclaimed “Alvaro Morata fan”, ESPN journalist Alejandro Moreno justified the ex-Juventus forward’s exclusion by saying, “This season, and not only because of his injury, but also his performances when he was healthy, Morata has taken a big step back in his career.” “Julen Lopetegui made his decision, based on performance and form and I think it makes sense.” While Morata has bagged five goals in Spain’s road to Russia and is the only traditional No.9 alongside Diego Costa, with Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas and Valencia’s Rodrigo operating in wider attacking roles, it is hard to construct a sizeable argument in favor of the 25-year old after a dreadful year at the Stamford Bridge.

While La Roja’s golden boys transgressed the very definition of the term, “serial winners”, Spain’s current crop of superstars wield the strength in depth at their disposal to lift the coveted trophy on July 15.

Despite the plethora of lineups that were utilized by Lopetegui, the system remains a traditional 4-3-3 formation. The ex-Barcelona goalkeeper has a good headache in all areas of the pitch, however, the midfield continues to remain Spain’s sharpest weapon.

David Silva has been La Roja’s standout player this season after enjoying his most productive season for Manchester City, scoring 10 goals and 13 assists in all competitions. The ex-Valencia man has been a metronome in the Sky Blues midfield and is playing the best football in his career at the age of 32 which is testament to his longevity at the top level. “Merlin” is also Spain’s second highest goalscorer in World Cup qualifiers with 5 goals.

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David Silva and Iniesta will be key men in Spain’s quest for the Cup. Photo via twitter

Another man who has grabbed his somewhat limited opportunities with both hands is Isco. The 26-year old has assisted 7 goals and scored 2 goals in 9 league starts and a total of 21 appearances in La Liga. Despite his sporadic contributions domestically, the ex-Malaga youth product has cemented his place in the hole of Real Madrid’s 4-4-2 diamond formation behind Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, winning two Champions Leagues on the trot with the prospect of earning a third straight consecutive medal against Liverpool in Kyiv. Julen Lopetegui’s vision should include Isco operating in a free role or an advanced midfield position, which allows the fleet-footed Spaniard to wreak havoc by roaming in unmarked spaces.

A perfect example of this is his man of the match display in a 3-0 win against Italy in a which he scored a stunning brace.

Solidity in the midfield is also bountiful with Sergio Busquets and Koke playing the No.6 roles, with the likes of Thiago Alcantara and Andres Iniesta playing slightly in front of the midfield general.

Saul Niguez is the trump card in midfield, offering versatility in three different positions: central midfield, Right-Wing, and defensive midfield.

Defensively, the Spanish continue with the rock-solid pairing of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique. Cesar Azpilicueta and Nacho provide multi-functional abilities, with the former capable of playing as a centre-half in three and four-man systems as well as a Right-Wing-Back, while traditionally operating as a Right-Back. Dani Carvajal and Jordi Alba are an exciting Full-Back partnership, with the likes of Alvaro Odriozola and Nacho Monreal proving to be effective second-choices.

In goal, David De Gea is inarguably the best goalkeeper in the world and has the potential to match Iker Casillas’ decorated career for Spain.

Upfront, Diego Costa is one of the most feared strikers on the planet, however his temper and recklessness make the Atletico Madrid hitman his own worst enemy. Rodrigo and Iago Aspas are versatile players that play with a lot of heart and desire.

Marco Asensio is the man to watch as the Real Madrid youngster has already scored in a Champions League final against Juventus, and this season’s semi-final encounter against Bayern Munich at the tender age of 22. The precocious winger is mature beyond his years and is a genuine threat on the wing, a position where the Spaniards have lacked a threat since David Villa in his prime.

Overall, Julen Lopetegui and Co. have all the tools to win a second World Cup and put the doubters to shame, however it will be intriguing to see if the class of ’18 can rewind the years to the Golden Generations, or bow out and relive the tag of underachievers.

Feature Image via Pinterest

Image 1 Via Youtube

Image 2 Via NDTV Sports

Image 3 via Bleacher Report

Image 4 Via Twitter

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