Young players try to replace Spain's old guard at World Cup
MADRID (AP) — A talented group of youngsters have been put in charge of a difficult task for Spain: Replacing some of the best players to ever wear the national team's jersey.
As La Roja's continues to lose members of its golden generation, it will be up to a gifted group of players to try to take over the national team.
The old guard will still be present in Russia with the likes of Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos and David Silva, but they will be sharing the spotlight with younger players such as Francisco "Isco" Alarcon, Marco Asensio and David de Gea.
Thiago Alcantara, Dani Carvajal, Saul Niguez, Lucas Vazquez, Rodrigo and Jorge "Koke" Resurreccion will also be among those trying to establish themselves as the future of Spanish football.
"In any national team, the young players who have quality and the right mentality will stand out. And that's how it should be," Spain coach Julen Lopetegui said. "If they are here, it's because they stood out. They wouldn't be here otherwise. They have the right mentality to be able to compete with the national team."
Spain has been gradually revamping its squad after winning the European Championship in 2008 and 2012 and the World Cup in 2010.
Iniesta, Ramos, Silva and reserve goalkeeper Pepe Reina are the only players from the current squad who played at Euro 2008, and Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets are the only other players who were in the 2010 World Cup.
The need to renew the national team became clear when Spain failed to get past the group stage in the 2014 World Cup with a team that still included the likes of Iker Casillas, Raul Albiol, David Villa, Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres.
"There's always a mix of generations in the national team," said Lopetegui, who has been in charge of the team's revamping process since taking over from Vicente Del Bosque after Euro 2016. "You have to bring the best players you think will help you win matches."
Only 11 players are back from the team that was eliminated by Italy in the round of 16 at Euro 2016.
Some of the main protagonists in Lopetegui's team have never played in a major tournament, including Isco, Carvajal and Asensio.
But Isco has been key for Spain's recent revival, successfully taking over the team's playmaking role and becoming an indisputable starter for Lopetegui. He was one of the leading scorers in Spain's unbeaten World Cup qualifying campaign with five goals, including two in a decisive match against Italy at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. Asensio, Isco's teammate at Real Madrid, also was a starter in that resounding victory that helped Spain restore some of its confidence after recent disappointments.
Asensio is the youngest player in the current squad at age 22, while Reina is the oldest at 35. Eleven players in this year's World Cup team are 27 or younger.
Spain is unbeaten in 18 matches since Lopetegui took over and began revamping the national team.
Lopetegui himself can be considered a member of Spain's new generation. He was picked for the job thanks in part to his knowledge of the youngsters who have been asserting themselves. Lopetegui led Spain's under-19 and under-21 teams to European titles in the early 2010s with many of the players he is now taking to Russia.
The under-21 team that won the European championship in 2013 included seven players from this year's World Cup squad — Isco, Carvajal, Niguez, Koke, Rodrigo, De Gea and Nacho Fernandez.
"They are players who have been with the national team since they were very young, that's important," the 51-year-old Lopetegui said. "The players who have been with the national team for a long time are used to international competitions, used to playing against the best in the world."
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni