Spain kick off their 2018 World Cup campaign on Friday with an Iberian derby against European champions Portugal. They head into that game as firm favourites with the bookies and they are certainly viewed as strong contenders to go all the way this summer in Russia.
The 2017-18 season has already seen them put in two performances of the very highest quality against strong opposition in the shape of a 3-0 qualifying win over Italy and 6-1 friendly success against Argentina. Those victories certainly got fans of La Roja excited and suggested this current crop of Spanish talent more closely resembles the history-making class of 2008 to 2012 than it does the sides that have failed to deliver at the last two major tournaments.
However their two World Cup warm-up friendlies have proved to be something of a reality check. Both were against the sort of sides that Spain would expect to beat when the real action kicks off later this week but they made hard work of both games and the few remaining key questions surrounding how they will line up on Friday, remain unanswered.
Read more: Who will start up front for Spain?
Spain 1-1 Switzerland
The biggest question heading into the friendlies was who would start up front and two of the three strikers in the squad were handed starts as Spain took on Switzerland in their opening warm-up match. Diego Costa led the line while Iago Aspas featured out wide, as he regularly has done for Celta Vigo in La Liga to good effect.
Just a week on from the Champions League Final, there were also starts for the likes of Cesar Azpilicueta, Koke and Thiago as the Real Madrid contingent were mostly rested. Up against a defensively-minded Swiss side, Spain controlled the game and dominated possession as you might expect. There wasn’t a lot wrong with their football but some of the spark and imagination that had fired La Roja to those two big wins was missing and Julen Lopetegui’s men laboured somewhat to a 1-1 draw in Villarreal.
The Spanish goal wasn’t scored by Costa, Aspas or Valencia forward Rodrigo who came on in the Second Half, but by young right-back Alvaro Odriozola, perhaps the biggest surprise inclusion in the Spain 2018 World Cup squad. His volley was certainly the standout moment of the night but there was a surprise at the other end too as the usually dependable David de Gea made an error which led to the Swiss equaliser.
It was actually his second big mistake of 2018 in a Spanish shirt despite another largely faultless season in the Premier League. Despite the odd suggestion in the Spanish media that Kepa or even Pepe Reina could push him for the number one jersey, it would be a huge surprise were De Gea not to continue as Spain’s number one in Russia.
The other major issue that Lopetegui would have been looking at was in central midfield. Both Koke and Thiago got 90 minutes against the Swiss but one of them is likely to make way for Sergio Busquets when the 2018 World Cup kicks off. Neither man really staked a strong claim as Spain played their final friendly on home soil before jetting off to Russia for the clash with Tunisia.
Spain 1-0 Tunisia
Spain were one of the first countries to head to their 2018 World Cup base with their friendly with Tunisia taking place in Krasnodar, which will be their home for the duration of their stay in Russia. Again they faced relatively defensive opponents, which is likely to be the case when they take on Iran and Morocco in the group stage, and again Spain struggled to really find much cutting edge in the final third.
The starting eleven this time was stronger with Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets and Isco returning however it was Tunisia who had the better of the first half. The North Africans had a couple of good chances to break the deadlock but Spain managed to exert more control after the interval and eventually claimed a 1-0 win despite rarely hitting top gear.
The game perhaps offered Lopetegui a few more answers in terms of his striker dilemma although not necessarily the ones he was expecting. Rodrigo started the game but was largely ineffectual and Spain looked at their most threatening in the final fifteen minutes with Diego Costa and Iago Aspas up top. The duo combined as Costa set up Aspas for the game’s only goal and Lopetegui conceded that it was still possible he would go with two up top at the 2018 World Cup. However in truth, he will still have plenty of thinking to do over the days leading up to the Portugal clash and it remains very possible that he will go with a false nine in the shape of Isco or even David Silva.
Despite only mustering two shots on target against an unfancied Tunisian side, there were some positives to come out of the game and it highlighted how the strength of Spain’s substitutes bench could be key in Russia. Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio both came on in the Second Half and injected some much needed energy and that is likely to be a recurring theme over the next month and Asensio especially come prove a real match-winner if he is used off the bench against tiring defences.
How prepared are they for their World Cup campaign?
There is a sense that Spain were more confident about their chances before their final two friendlies but there certainly remains an air of optimism. The fact they didn’t really find top gear in those games is perhaps not surprising given the Spanish league season finished later than most European leagues and with Real Madrid also reaching the Champions League Final, trying to keep players fresh was as big a priority as making a statement.
Significantly Spain remain unbeaten since Euro 2016 and are yet to taste defeat under Lopetegui so that gives them a real mental advantage heading into this summer’s tournament. Few sides can rival their strength in depth but it’s clear that they are yet to establish who is best placed to start in the number nine role and it will be genuinely interesting to see who Lopetegui picks on Friday.
That’s certainly a concern but they do have an array of different options and different types of players which is a key difference this time around. Ball retention should again be a major strength but the likes of Asensio and Saul, who could also have a bigger role to play than many are expecting, gives them a bit more variety and all things considered Spain are still in pretty good shape heading into this tournament.
Fitness-wise, the injured Dani Carvajal is the only major concern. One of the biggest pluses from the two warm-up games though was that Álvaro Odriozola stepped up to the plate in his absence while Real Madrid’s Nacho is also capable of performing in the role and may be the preferred option against Portugal given they are likely to be a threat from wide.
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