La Roja head into the 2018 World Cup as one of the favourites again and under new management, hopes are high that they will go deep in Russia following failures at the last two tournaments.
La Liga ended later than most European leagues while the season was extended further for their sizeable Real Madrid contingent by the Champions League Final. Whether those factors will be a help or a hindrance to Julen Lopetegui’s men remains to be seen but it should ensure they are still match-sharp when the tournament kicks off although fatigue could become a factor later on.
They have a couple of friendly matches first though as Spain look to sow the seeds for another serious World Cup challenge. This is their potential path to the Final in Moscow:
Read more: Spain’s 2018 World Cup squad
Warm Up Friendlies
3rd June – Spain vs Switzerland (Villarreal)
Spain will play one friendly on home soil before they jet off to Russia. They’ve opted to make a rare trip to Villarreal and the opposition will be Switzerland. It’s a slightly curious choice given they don’t really strike you as a close match to any of the teams in their group but it will be a low-key kind of game you imagine, with both teams likely to chop and change to give players a run-out as they look to build towards the tournament itself.
Lopetegui may consider resting his Real Madrid contingent here with them likely to need a break following the Champions League Final. That’s likely to mean surprise inclusion lvaro Odriozola will win just his third cap. Other things to look out for will be the reaction Gerard Pique gets in what will be his final international on Spanish soil. He was heavily booed when La Roja travelled to this part of Spain earlier in the season for a qualifier against Albania just days after the Catalan independence referendum.
It’ll also give Lopetegui another chance to experiment up top with the nature of how the front three shapes up, the biggest selection call he has to make. The likes of Iago Aspas, Diego Costa and Rodrigo are hoping to stake their claim for a starting role.
9th June – Spain vs Tunisia (Krasnodar)
Spain will fly out to their base in Krasnodar soon after the friendly with the Swiss. The city won’t be hosting any World Cup matches so it should be a decent place for the Spanish camp to unwind away from the public glare but the city will host Spain’s final warm-up game against Tunisia.
Tunisia have been hand-picked as opponents due to their similarities to the style of fellow North Africans Morocco and perhaps even Iran, two sides that Spain will play in the group stages. We should see a strong line-up here although again there are sure to be plenty of substitutions with the crucial first group game just six days away.
World Cup Group Stages
15th June – Portugal vs Spain (Sochi)
This is probably the standout fixture from the group stage at the World Cup. Along with England vs Belgium, it’s the only real heavyweight clash we will see in the opening phase and from a neutral perspective, it’s great that it comes on match-day one rather than during the final round of group fixtures, by which time at least one of these sides would most likely have secured qualification.
It is of course an Iberian derby and both sides will know each other very well. Between them Spain and Portugal have won 4 of the last 5 major tournaments in which they’ve featured, with Germany’s 2014 World Cup breaking that sequence. Spain will be the favourites but it’s worth noting they have lost their opening game at the last two World Cups and it’ll be fascinating to watch Cristiano Ronaldo up against club colleagues Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal in the Spanish defence.
With Russia vs Saudi Arabia hardly a thrilling tournament opener the previous evening, this one promises to be a bit special and will be well worth tuning in for on the first Friday night of the 2018 World Cup.
20th June – Iran vs Spain (Kazan)
Even if Cristiano Ronaldo and co manage to send Spain to defeat, La Roja’s path to the last sixteen would still be very much open. This ought to be their easiest group game against an Iranian side that is coached by former Real Madrid boss Carlos Queiroz.
It’s likely to be a very different kind of test against an Iranian side that kept nine straight clean sheets in qualifying. Spain will need to be at their creative best to unlock the door but over the course of ninety minutes, they ought to do that at least once and as a result chalk up three points.
25th June – Morocco vs Spain (Kaliningrad)
Spain might already be through by the time they reach Kaliningrad and their final group game against Morocco. Even so, you’d fancy they could rotate heavily and still have the edge here given the depth that exists in their squad. Morocco also proved to be pretty organised as they won their qualifying group, which included Ivory Coast, without conceding a single goal.
It’s also worth noting that this game is another local derby. Just 20 or so miles separate the Southern Spanish coast and the Moroccan city of Tangiers and many Moroccans make the short crossing to Spain to get their first taste of European action so it will be a huge occasion for the North Africans and they will know all the Spanish players well.
Read more: Can Spain relive the golden days in Russia?
World Cup Knockout Rounds
1st July – Russia vs Spain (Moscow)
Whoever emerges from Group B, and barring any upsets it should be Spain and Portugal, will face Group A opposition in the next stage. Spain you sense won’t be too concerned who they face but there is a slight advantage for the winners of their group. Whoever that side is will move into the section of the draw that would see them play three of their four knockout games at the same venue, in the shape of Moscow’s huge Luzhniki Stadium.
Assuming Spain pip Portugal to top spot, they may well find themselves taking on hosts Russia in the last sixteen. That would of course evoke memories of the 2002 World Cup when they surprisingly crashed out against host nation South Korea in the knockout stage.
A match against Russia in Moscow, would be as much a test of character as anything. They’d have to deal with a hostile home crowd but on the pitch, Spain are far superior to a fairly average Russian team and should progress.
7th July – Spain vs Argentina (Sochi)
While things are getting a bit hypothetical now, Spain’s World Cup path could well lead to a Quarter-Final with Argentina in Sochi, the Southernmost of the 12 venues being used at the 2018 World Cup.
The sides met earlier in the year in a friendly in Madrid and Spain won 6-1 so the Spanish ought to take a real psychological advantage from that. Isco ripped into the Argentines that evening, netting a hat-trick but significantly Leo Messi did not feature in that game. Lopetegui would most likely need to alter his game-plan to deal with the supreme talents of Messi but overall it’s still a tie Spain would fancy with the Europeans the more accomplished all-round side.
11th July – Spain vs Germany (Moscow)
Were they to progress to the last four, it would be back to Moscow again and quite possibly a date with Germany in a real clash of the titans. It would be a match-up between the two most recent World Cup winners and would of course be a repeat of both the 2010 Semi-Final and also Euro 2008 Final, when Spain’s golden era commenced.
Spain won both of those matches and they are perhaps the one side that Germany are genuinely hopeful of avoiding this summer in Russia. They didn’t have to come through the test of Spain en route to winning the 2014 tournament and there is a sense that the relentless possession football that La Roja are capable of playing, could just wear this German side down again.
15th July – Spain vs Brazil (Moscow)
If Spain are still in Russia come mid-July then things will be going very well indeed and Lopetegui’s men would be starting to believe that they were on the road to emulating the class of 2010. Of course a number of those players still remain and that experience of the biggest stage of all could prove decisive in a potential Final against a side like Brazil, whose recent memories of the latter stages of World Cups are rather more painful ones.
The South Americans do head into the tournament as favourites but man-for-man, you could argue Spain have the edge. Surprisingly the sides haven’t met at a World Cup since 1986 though and Spain haven’t beaten Brazil in a competitive fixture since the second World Cup way back in 1934.
Therefore it would be a really interesting match-up although clearly both sides would have to overcome many obstacles to reach this point. 15th July could potentially be the date the likes of Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique become the first men to be crowned a world champion twice in the 21st Century and it would be a fourth major crown in six tournaments for Spain.
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