Group H: Spain

The European Champions won every one of their 10 qualifying games and are brimming with confidence, writes Simon Talbot.

Something shifted in Vienna. When Fernando Torres brushed past Phillipp Lahm and lifted the ball beyond Jens Lehmann and into the net, not only had he scored the most important goal in Spain’s footballing history, he appeared to have altered their footballing future too. Euro 2008 was Spain’s first success for 44 years but surely not their last. Torres’s goal represented the end of a long journey, and the beginning of another.

As one headline put it: “Spain come into this World Cup as genuine favourites.” The “unlike every other time” went without saying. Every four years, the Spanish allowed themselves to believe but, deep down, they didn’t really believe. This time, they do. Every four years, they were declared tournament dark horses. Forget dark horses – this time they are favourites. Proper favourites.

Euro 2008 changed everything; washed away tears and fears, bringing belief. It reinforced a footballing identity previously questioned, providing certainty and commitment to a technical, ball-playing style. And it confirmed that this is a special generation of players. As Fernando Torres told FFT just after that goal: “If we’d said four years ago that Spain would win the European Championships and go into the World Cup with a chance of winning it, you’d have said we were mad. But not now.”

Spain’s record has been extraordinary. Even changing coaches has not slowed their stride. If anything, it has quickened it. When Vicente del Bosque took over from Luis Aragones, he announced that he would “respect the legacy” left by the former coach, making changes but doing so “gently”. The changes he has made have been seamless and successful: Gerard Pique is a fixture already and the addition of width with Jesus Navas has given Spain greater attacking variety.

The results speak volumes. Del Bosque won his first 13 games, a world record for a new coach. There is change but mostly there is continuity. Since Andres Iniesta scored against England at Old Trafford in 2007, Spain have played 45 games under two coaches and lost just once, against the USA in the semi-final of the Confederations Cup. They have won 41 times, scoring 103; 33 of their last 34 competitive matches have been victories and friendlies saw them defeat Argentina, England and France.

No wonder everyone has them down as favourites. The task has been to stress humility, to curb the enthusiasm and relieve the pressure. “We can win the World Cup,” says David Villa, “but only if we’re humble and go into every game knowing it’s going to be tough.”

“We are not the favourites, but we have to accept that people have us down as favourites,” Del Bosque says. “The problem is that people don’t seem to realise that Brazil, Italy, England, Germany and the rest have very good sides too.”

But the excitement is natural. It is not just that Spain are winning; it is that they appear so in control. 

StrengthsTheir greatest strength is their mastery of the ball, based upon a midfield of Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta and Silva that never seem to misplace a single pass. So good are they that there has rarely been a starting place for Cesc Fabregas – arguably the Premier League’s outstanding midfielder. After a recent friendly in Paris, Thierry Henry said it all when he shrugged: “You can’t get the ball off them.”

With Fernando Torres and David Villa ahead of them, Spain’s forward line is deadly, too, while the defence is tougher than is often assumed. Pique is on course to become the world’s best centre-back: strong, quick, intelligent and impeccable on the ball. And then there’s Iker Casillas – the man they call Saint Iker, the goalkeeper with unrivalled reflexes.

They are well hidden. But one place where Spain can be attacked is at full-back where Sergio Ramos is athletic but not always well positioned and Joan Capdevila is limited. The trouble is, to get at the full-backs you have to get the ball off them – and for opponent after opponent that has proven the toughest of tasks.

Interesting fact Despite Spain winning every game, Fernando Torres didn't score a single goal in qualifying. And since you ask, he started seven of the 10 matches, in which Spain netted 18 goals.

The Coach: Vicente del BosqueThe man with the warm smile and bushy tache, has slowly shifted the Seleccion’s approach. Nothing was broken, so he hasn’t fixed a thing. What he has done is fine-tune and make the occasional addition. Popular and respected, he has brought width and variety and experimented with a five-man midfield in the absence of Torres. Like everything else, it worked.

Key Player: Gerard PiqueFrom Manchester United reserve to treble winner in just a couple of years – a good World Cup would secure the Barcelona man's place as the best defender in the world.

Probable Team (4-4-2): Casillas; Ramos, Pique, Puyol, Capdevila; Iniesta, Alonso, Xavi, Silva; Torres, Villa

World Cup Talentspotter: More details on the playersQ&A: FFT interviews a player from every nation

FixturesSwitzerland, June 16, 3pm, DurbanHonduras, June 21, 7.30pm, JohannesburgChile, June 25, 7.30pm, Tshwane/Pretoria

Qualified Top of UEFA Group 5Bosnia-Herzegovina (H) 1-0Armenia (H) 4-0Estonia (A) 3-0Belgium (A) 2-1Turkey (H) 1-0Turkey (A) 2-1Belgium (H) 5-0Estonia (H) 3-0Armenia (A) 2-1Bosnia-Herzegovina (A) 5-2

World Cup record1934 Quarter-Final1950 Fourth Place1962 1st Round1966 1st Round1978 1st Round1982 2nd Round1986 Quarter-Final1990 2nd Round1994 Quarter-Final1998 1st Round2002 Quarter-Final2006 2nd Round

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