There was a time when it looked as if Spain would dominate international football forever more, a bit like King Joffrey in Game of Thrones, only with more benevolence and less wine poisoning (spoiler alert for something that happened 16 years ago).
Before the 2014 World Cup, Vicente del Bosque’s side had won the previous three international tournaments, lost only once in three years and had lifted the past two European Under-21 Championships to ensure a ready-made production line of next-generation talent. What followed in Brazil, beginning with a 5-1 defeat to the Dutch, was nothing short of a capitulation.
David Villa, Xavi and Xabi Alonso retired from international football. The expectation was that Iker Casillas would follow suit. Also, Diego Costa was ill-equipped to be centre-forward in a team where the striker is rarely involved. It was time for Koke, Thiago Alcantara and even Cesc Fabregas to step up, and for the team to evolve.
Yet the defending European champions are still in a state of flux. There are doubts over who will start in goal – Del Bosque remains loyal to captain Casillas in spite of David de Gea’s consistent excellence for Manchester United – and there’s no obvious candidate to be the third midfielder alongside Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta. Koke, Thiago, Fabregas and Santi Cazorla (if fit) can all fill in and play the role, yet nobody has definitively secured that starting spot.
The left-wing spot is also up for grabs. Pedro and Nolito are the leading candidates but neither of them strikes fear into defenders’ hearts, as Villa did in his prime.
For all this, however, Spain were dominant in qualifying, and despite losing friendlies to the French, Germans and Dutch since the summer of 2014, they have arguably Euro 2016’s most talented squad. If it clicks, they’re a difficult side to stop.
Lesson from qualifying
Keep scoring early. Spain netted in the first half-hour of seven qualifiers; the only time they weren’t winning at the halfway stage was in a 2-1 loss to Slovakia. Those early goals suit a short-passing philosophy that comes under pressure if the team’s behind.
Not only did La Roja qualify with the best defensive record, they did so on the back of eight consecutive clean sheets following the Slovakia defeat. Juanfran, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Jordi Alba provide the perfect mix of solidity and attacking verve, with Busquets a superb midfield screen.
Goals. Whether he goes with Costa (too aggressive), Paco Alcacer (too raw), Aritz Aduriz (too old) or Alvaro Morata (too out of form), Del Bosque has no go-to striker. Fabregas may even be repurposed as a false nine once again. When the going’s tough, they lack someone who can both score and contribute in build-up play.
Most likely to…
Pass, pass, then pass some more, go back to passing and pass. Some call it boring; others appreciate the difficulty involved in maintaining possession perfection. Either way, you know what you’re going to get.
Least likely to…
Win the style stakes. Whatever way you look at it – behind a 10ft steel fence would suffice – Spain’s away kit is... interesting. Resembling the pixelated by-product of one shandy too many, it’s an acquired taste, to say the least.
What they hope will happen
They could make history. Four years ago, Spain became the first team to defend their European Championship crown. Even at the World Cup finals, no country has ever managed to lift the same international trophy three times in a row.
What will happen
Group D isn’t the worst, but Turkey, Croatia and the Czech Republic are no mugs. Spain must avoid finishing second, which would mean a last-16 tie with the Group E winners – likely to be Italy or Belgium. Still, they’re good enough to reach the final.
Key player - Andres Iniesta
No longer forced onto the left wing, Iniesta is Spain’s creative hub. He is already his country’s most decorated footballer ever, and scored the extra-time winner in the 2010 World Cup Final, but the Barcelona man has also been in imperious form domestically and has the temperament, talent and vision to boss Euro 2016.
Manager - Vicente del Bosque
Now 100-odd games into his tenure, Del Bosque is likely to make Euro 2016 his La Roja swansong. He’s fiercely loyal (some would say overly so, particularly in regard to his senior pros) and well-liked by players.
Q&A - Nolito
What are you expecting from your first senior tournament with Spain this summer?
I’ve dreamt about this so many times, and fought so hard to make the dream a reality, that
I hope to enjoy it – going to the Euros and trying to win it – as much as possible. Bringing home the trophy would be brilliant for every Spaniard. That would be an image I would save for the rest of my life.
As a Celta Vigo player, has it been odd to train with the likes of Andres Iniesta?
No, because everything has happened so quickly, I’ve barely been able to think about it. I’ve come to see wearing the Spain shirt as like going out for a meal with my friends from home. The manager asks that I just keep playing like I do for Celta.
What do you think went wrong for Spain at the World Cup in 2014?
I don’t know, but at any World Cup there are a lot of good teams that play at a similar level as you. We were eliminated very early in the competition, but I still think Spain have a lot of credit going into this particular tournament because we have won a World Cup recently, in 2010, as well as the last two European Championships.
This is a key moment for Spain now. What has the team learned from that shock exit in Brazil?
It’s difficult to say exactly, but what I do know is that we have a very good team that can win the tournament playing attractive football. I believe that 100 per cent, even if some of those games in Brazil, or our more recent friendlies, haven’t gone as well as you’d expect. We have enormous potential, but so do other teams. You’ve also got Germany, England, Italy, France… What is certain is that whoever ends up as the champion will be very strong throughout the tournament.
Fixtures and results
June 13, Czech Republic Toulouse, 9pm
June 18, Turkey - Nice, 3am
June 22, Croatia - Bordeaux, 3am
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Group C winners
vs Macedonia (H) 5-1
vs Slovakia (A) 1-2
vs Luxembourg (A) 4-0
vs Belarus (H) 3-0
vs Ukraine (H) 1-0
vs Belarus (A) 1-0
vs Slovakia (H) 2-0
vs Macedonia (A) 1-0
vs Luxembourg (H) 4-0
vs Ukraine (A) 1-0
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD
1980 Group stage
1988 Group stage
2004 Group stage
Words Andrew Murray; Interview Alvaro Calleja
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