Spain team applaud at the end of the World Cup 2018 qualifier football match Spain vs Albania at the Jose Rico Perez stadium in Alicante. Photo: JOSE JORDAN / AFP
They may not be a top seed for Friday’s World Cup draw in Moscow, but the fresh blood added by coach Julen Lopetegui has put Spain back among the favourites for glory next July.
Early exits at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 appeared to show the sun was setting on Spain’s most successful generation after three consecutive major tournament triumphs at Euros 2008 and 2012 either side of La Roja’s only ever World Cup title in South Africa in 2010.
However, since succeeding Vicente del Bosque, Lopetegui has blended the experienced remnants of the World Cup winning side with a host of graduates from the under-21 team he led to a European title in 2013.
The results have been spectacular. Sixteen games into his reign, Lopetegui has yet to taste defeat.
Spain’s qualifying record of nine wins and a draw, scoring 36 goals and conceding just three, left Italy a distant second in Group G and on the brink of their World Cup abyss.
Just over a year after being dumped out of Euro 2016 by the Azzurri, Spain thrashed Italy 3-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu in September in a style reminiscent of the “tiki-taka” short-passing game that bamboozled opponents and won fans across the world between 2008 and 2012.
“I believe that the best thing a coach has to do is optimise and make the most of the virtues of his players”, Lopetegui told Barcelona-based sports newspaper Mundo Deportivo on Wednesday.
“I think that the best quality of Spanish players is their passing ability and individual technique. Logically, we have to take advantage of that.”
Lopetegui said it would be a mistake to try to adopt the Italian “door-bolt” defensive system.
“Spain can’t play catenaccio because that wouldn’t make the most of the quality of our players.”
– Youth and experience –
The core that has survived from Spain’s heyday contains Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, David Silva, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.
Some of the energy and hunger missing in recent tournaments has been added by the likes of David de Gea, Koke, Isco, Thiago Alcantara and Alvaro Morata who plug the gaps left by Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, Xavi and Xabi Alonso.
Morata’s stunning start to life at Chelsea has also eased a long-running void up front since David Villa and Fernando Torres were at their peak.
Villa, now 35 and plying his trade with New York City in Major League Soccer, was even recalled to the squad for the demolition of Italy two months ago.
Sometimes in the glory years Spain would line up without a recognised striker, and in this qualifying campaign the goals again flowed from a richly talented midfield.
David Silva is now Spain’s fourth highest goalscorer of all-time with 11 in 15 matches, whilst Isco has netted six goals in his last nine caps.
Spain may have to do it the hard way in Russia. Their seeding in pot two means the likes of Brazil, Germany or France could be waiting in the group stages.
“We know we’ll get a big team for sure,” added Lopetegui. “All the seeded teams are dangerous.
“We take what comes with confidence, believing in ourselves.”
Without doubt a revitalised Spain will be the lower seeded side others most want to avoid on Friday.