FIFA World Cup 2018: A preview of what to expect from Spain
The road to Russia: Spain’s Stamp of Authority makes them true Title Contenders
The FIFA World Cup has always been about big teams stepping up at crucial times. One team that knows how to handle the big stage is Spain. La Roja, captained by Sergio Ramos, can move the ball around with precision and get the job done. The 2010 World Champions were absolutely dominant in the qualifiers for the World Cup where they were paired alongside Albania, Israel, Macedonia, and Liechtenstein.
The other team in that group who were expected to pose a stiffer challenge was four-time champions, Italy. Such was Spain's dominance that they qualified to the World Cup with 9 wins and 1 draw from 10 qualifying matches. In the process, not only did they top the group, they scored 36 times and conceded only thrice in ten matches.
At the last 2014 World Cup, the 2010 Champions were thoroughly outplayed in the group stages by Netherlands and Chile before bowing out in the Group stages with a consolation win over Australia.
Lack of trophies in the last four years not a concern
Since then, nothing has happened in terms of trophies. Spain dominated for 4 years between 2008 and 2012. In this phase, they won back-to-back European Championships and a World Cup. Spain's then coach Vincent del Bosque was the architect-in-chief but the subsequent decline of the team saw his exit.
Julen Lopetegui was the next in line to take charge and since then the transformation has been slow but steady. The squad has seen wholesome changes, some due to retirement and some due to club form. The current Spanish team might be ranked eighth in the world but it surely is not an actual reflection of their talent and form.
Spain’s fixtures do not make them outright favourites to win the Group
Spain is placed in Group B. What otherwise might look simple, may not be as it seems as reigning European champions Portugal, Iran and Morocco are the other teams of Group B. Spain's opening fixture against Portugal will be delicious. Real Madrid teammates Ronaldo and Ramos will be up against each other. This World Cup may arguably be Ronaldo’s last shot at the World Cup. Portugal is ranked fourth in the world, four places above Spain, and there is almost nothing that separates the two teams which makes the tie intriguing.
Spain's second Group game against Iran will be no walk in the park. Ranked 36, Iran has made World Cup participation a habit and are coached by ex-Real Madrid coach Carlos Queiroz. He has helped the team qualify for a second straight World Cup.
In the 2014 World Cup, Iran held off a ninety-minute challenge against an all-out attacking Argentina only to be on the losing side thanks to a Lionel Messi screamer in stoppage time. Iran are strong in defence and Spain will have to bring their tactical master class to the pitch if they want to return with three points from the fixture. Morocco may have punched above their weight to qualify for Russia but Spain should face their weakest challenge in the tournament from the north African opponents.
Overall, Spain is expected to win the Group on reputation and progress smoothly to the Round of 16.
A tricky road for spectacular Spanish
If Spain do manage to qualify for the Round of 16, they will be up against the winner or runners-up of Group A. There is a possibility of a clash with Ballon d’ Or hopeful Mo Salah’s Egypt, Luis Suarez’s Uruguay, or a probable clash with hosts Russia, depending on Spain’s position in their own group.
It is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will make it beyond the opening round. However, if the Green Falcons do make it to the Round of 16, Spain will have it rather easy ahead of any other opponent from Group A.
If Spain do reach the quarter-final, a potential repeat clash with European Runners-Up France may be on the cards. Many consider this generation of French players to be the finest since the 1998 World Cup winning team. The current French team were the favourites to win at the 2016 Euros but only ended up stumbling at the final hurdle to Portugal.
Spain should have an uphill task should they have to face the likes of Dembele, Mbappe, Griezmann and Pogba. A potential semi-final with Lionel Messi’s Argentina cannot be ruled out either. The Albiceleste have lost their best keeper Sergio Romero to injury, but with a lot of experienced campaigners, some of whom were a part of 2014 final, they are a serious threat.
Argentina boasts of stars like Di Maria, Dybala, Aguero and Messi, players who could make defences shiver. Argentina is surely one of the contenders in this edition of the World Cup as well. Therefore, La Roja will have their task cut out should they lock horns with Argentina. Spain are in the top half of the draw with some of the toughest sides in world football at present.
Squad: Lopetegui shows faith in merit over reputation
The talk of the town before every World Cup centers around players who either get injured or players who are ignored for the World Cup. Spain manager Julen Lopetegui has taken no half measures in his selection method though. His intent is clear: he does not go by past reputation.
Chelsea teammates Alvaro Morata, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro, and Marcos Alonso are the biggest names to be omitted. Spain has refused the services of Manchester United stars Ander Herrera and Juan Mata as well.
Other big names not making the trip to Russia are Marc Batra, Vitolo and Paco Alcacer. Spain has seen a transition over the last four years with big names Casillas and Xavi relinquishing international duties.
Spain will have a “problem of plenty”
However, Lopetegui has six players from Madrid while four from Barcelona have made the cut in the 23-man provisional squad for Russia. David De Gea will surely be in between the sticks for Spain, as he will have Reina as his backup.
Chelsea’s Azpiliceuta and Sociedad’s Odriozola will find themselves competing in the backline with Real Madrid and Barcelona defenders mostly. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique must forget their club differences if Spain has to go deep into the tournament. Wing backs Jordi Alba and Nacho all find themselves in the squad too.
However, an injury to Carvajal in the Champions League Final makes him a doubtful passenger for the trip to Russia.
The centre of the park will be full of creativity with Isco being the poster boy for Spain this time. It will also have seasoned campaigner Andres Iniesta, Koke, Sergio Busquets, David Silva and Thiago Alcantara, which should leave Spain with plenty to choose from.
Spain can boast of one of the most dynamic midfields of all the 32 participating nations. With this being Iniesta’s last World Cup surely, it will be interesting how much of an impact he can make to the team. The forwards will include talents like Marco Asensio and Lucas Vasquez, but the crucial cog in the wheel will be Diego Costa.
If he can replicate his free-flowing goalscoring form, then Spain will surely have nothing to worry.
Spain will crucially look to avoid injuries and prefer their players to be well rested before their opening Group B clash against Portugal in Krasnodar. However, the great Spanish team faces the problem of what England used to face with players assembling teams from rival clubs thereby losing team spirit.
Lopetegui will have a chance to test his combination against Switzerland on June 4 and then Tunisia on June 9 so that they can play the best combination in the World Cup. Switzerland are ranked two places above Spain at sixth, while Tunisia go into the World Cup as the highest ranked African team in the world currently (Ranked 14).
Though the results will be of little consequence in these two matches, it will be interesting to see if Spain can bring their best XI on to the pitch and get the results on their road to Moscow.