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 SpainÃ¢ÂÂs footballing history, he appeared to have altered their footballing future too. Euro 2008 was SpainÃ¢ÂÂs first success for 44 years but surely not their last. TorresÃ¢ÂÂs goal represented the end of a long journey, and the beginning of another.
As one headline put it: Ã¢ÂÂSpain come into this World Cup as genuine favourites.Ã¢ÂÂ The Ã¢ÂÂunlike every other timeÃ¢ÂÂ went without saying. Every four years, the Spanish allowed themselves to believe but, deep down, they didnÃ¢ÂÂt really believe. This time, they do. Every four years, they were declared tournament dark horses. Forget dark horses Ã¢ÂÂ 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: Ã¢ÂÂIf weÃ¢ÂÂd said four years ago that Spain would win the European Championships and go into the World Cup with a chance of winning it, youÃ¢ÂÂd have said we were mad. But not now.Ã¢ÂÂ
SpainÃ¢ÂÂs 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 Ã¢ÂÂrespect the legacyÃ¢ÂÂ left by the former coach, making changes but doing so Ã¢ÂÂgentlyÃ¢ÂÂ. 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. Ã¢ÂÂWe can win the World Cup,Ã¢ÂÂ says David Villa, Ã¢ÂÂbut only if weÃ¢ÂÂre humble and go into every game knowing itÃ¢ÂÂs going to be tough.Ã¢ÂÂ
Ã¢ÂÂWe are not the favourites, but we have to accept that people have us down as favourites,Ã¢ÂÂ Del Bosque says. Ã¢ÂÂThe problem is that people donÃ¢ÂÂt seem to realise that Brazil, Italy, England, Germany and the rest have very good sides too.Ã¢ÂÂ
But the excitement is natural. It is not just that Spain are winning; it is that they appear so in control. Ã¢ÂÂ¨
Their 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 Ã¢ÂÂ arguably the Premier LeagueÃ¢ÂÂs outstanding midfielder. After a recent friendly in Paris, Thierry Henry said it all when he shrugged: Ã¢ÂÂYou canÃ¢ÂÂt get the ball off them.Ã¢ÂÂ
With Fernando Torres and David Villa ahead of them, SpainÃ¢ÂÂs forward line is deadly, too, while the defence is tougher than is often assumed. Pique is on course to become the worldÃ¢ÂÂs best centre-back: strong, quick, intelligent and impeccable on the ball. And then thereÃ¢ÂÂs Iker Casillas Ã¢ÂÂ the man they call Saint Iker, the goalkeeper with unrivalled reflexes.
Ã¢ÂÂ¨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 Ã¢ÂÂ and for opponent after opponent that has proven the toughest of tasks.
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 Bosque
The man with the warm smile and bushy tache, has slowly shifted the SeleccionÃ¢ÂÂs approach. Nothing was broken, so he hasnÃ¢ÂÂt 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 Pique
From Manchester United reserve to treble winner in just a couple of years Ã¢ÂÂ 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
Switzerland, June 16, 3pm, Durban
Honduras, June 21, 7.30pm, Johannesburg
Chile, June 25, 7.30pm, Tshwane/Pretoria
Qualified Top of UEFA Group 5
Bosnia-Herzegovina (H) 1-0
Armenia (H) 4-0
Estonia (A) 3-0
Belgium (A) 2-1
Turkey (H) 1-0
Turkey (A) 2-1
Belgium (H) 5-0
Estonia (H) 3-0
Armenia (A) 2-1
Bosnia-Herzegovina (A) 5-2
World Cup record
1950 Fourth Place
1962 1st Round
1966 1st Round
1978 1st Round
1982 2nd Round
1990 2nd Round
1998 1st Round
2006 2nd Round