Spain come into the 2018 World Cup as third favourites with most bookies behind Brazil and Germany as they bid to take a step back to the golden era of 2008 to 2012 when they made history by winning three consecutive major tournaments. Many members of that side remain an active part of this current set-up but after back-to-back failures in 2014 and 2016, Spain have a point to prove in Russia.
This is the first tournament since 2008 that Spain head into without Vicente del Bosque at the helm. He was replaced by Julen Lopetegui following a last sixteen exit to Italy at Euro 2016 and ominously for the rest of the world, and Spain have not lost since. They gained revenge on the Azzurri by beating them to top spot in their qualifying group and have also recorded impressive friendly wins over the likes of Belgium, France and Argentina since they last tasted tournament action.
Therefore it would be foolish to view Spain as anything other than genuine contenders to repeat the feat they managed in South Africa eight years ago. The tournament will also mark something of an end of an era with the likes of Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta most likely ending their international careers after it so Lopetegui will be keen to see some of the emerging stars of Spanish football step up and deliver when it matters most.
Manager – Julen Lopetegui
David de Gea (Manchester United)
Pepe Reina (Napoli)
Kepa Arrizabalaga (Athletic Bilbao)
Jordi Alba (Barcelona)
Nacho Monreal (Arsenal)
Alvaro Odriozola (Real Sociedad)
Nacho Fernandez (Real Madrid)
Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid)
Gerard Pique (Barcelona)
Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid)
Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea)
Sergio Busquets (Barcelona)
Isco (Real Madrid)
Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich)
David Silva (Manchester City)
Andres Iniesta (Barcelona)
Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid)
Koke (Atletico Madrid)
Marco Asensio (Real Madrid)
Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo)
Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid)
Rodrigo Moreno (Valencia)
Lucas Vazquez (Real Madrid)
Perhaps the true quality of this squad is best measured by some of the Spanish players that won’t be heading to Russia this summer. Chelsea pair Cesc Fabregas and Alvaro Morata were both overlooked. Fabregas’ omission wasn’t a great surprise given he has fallen out of favour since the departure of Del Bosque, but Morata was viewed as Spain’s first choice striker as recently as the end of last year so it has been some fall from grace for the former Real Madrid man who has paid the price for a less than convincing second half of the season at Stamford Bridge.
Marcos Alonso, Pedro and Hector Bellerin are other London-based Spaniards to have missed out on a call. Just four Premier League players ultimately made the squad with Man United’s Juan Mata and Ander Herrera also missing out. Lopetegui has clearly favoured those based in La Liga although curiously Arsenal’s Nacho Monreal has been included in a move that will certainly leave many fans scratching their heads.
Monreal’s versatility perhaps helped seal his place and one of the features of this squad is the number of players that are capable of playing in different positions. Right-back Álvaro Odriozola is one of the other surprise names with the 22 year old Sociedad man having won just two caps previously. He’s only likely to provide cover to Dani Carvajal but it’s some rise for the young Basque, who was playing third tier football with Sociedad B as recently as eighteen months ago and has been selected ahead of both Bellerin and Barcelona’s Sergi Roberto.
Overall this is a squad that is packed with quality and experience and there are few obvious weak links. They may not have a Messi or Ronaldo in their ranks but in terms of all-round units and strength in depth, Spain are arguably best equipped to go deep in Russia this summer.
Star Player – Isco
Despite a talented squad, Spanish fans have to some extent fallen out of love with their once all-conquering national team in recent years. Home games have at times been staged at small third tier grounds with crowds rarely topping 20,000. However on 2nd September 2017, they put in their best performance since the Final of Euro 2012, utterly dominating their home qualifier against Italy, winning 3-0 at the Bernabeu to effectively seal qualification. It showcased all the attributes that made La Roja such a feared side during their golden era of success as Lopetegui gambled on starting without a recognised striker and was rewarded with a dominant passing display that went a long way to reviving hopes and expectations heading into Russia. The undisputed star that night was not Andres Iniesta or David Silva, but a 25-year old Andalusian by the name of Isco.
Playing in a more advanced role than he normally does for his club, Isco teased and tormented the Italians, scoring twice and having a hand in just about everything positive Spain did. He backed that up with a hat-trick against Argentina in a friendly earlier this year to further cement his rapid ascension from fringe player to star man. A similar process has taken place at club level with Zinedine Zidane altering his team’s style and often leaving players of the quality of Gareth Bale out to accommodate him.
Isco was part of the Spain Under-21 squad that won the 2013 European Championship under Julen Lopetegui, who crucially seems capable of getting the best out of the Real Madrid man, who has really come on as a player for both club and country over the past couple of years. This will be his first senior tournament but he has rapidly grown in stature to such an extent that he will be one of the first names on Lopetegui’s team-sheet in Russia and it very much feels as though his time is now to step up and be the main creative force in this team with the likes of Busquets, Iniesta and David Silva heading into the twilight years of their glittering careers.
One to Watch – Marco Asensio
This is a squad packed with household names and includes four players to have already passed 100 caps, while Lopetegui has only opted to include four players under the age of 26, which will make it one of the oldest squads in Russia. However, it could be the youngest man in the twenty-three who provides that spark that has perhaps just been missing in recent tournaments.
Marco Asensio is certainly the most exciting young player Spain have produced in a number of years, and although he is yet to fully cement himself in the Real Madrid side this could be the tournament where he truly announces himself as one of the emerging stars of world football. Like your typical Spanish player, Asensio is comfortable with the ball at his feet and at maintaining possession but he has that turn of pace and the ability to produce a moment of magic which will make him a real asset to Lopetegui, whether he ends up using him as a starter or in more of a super-sub capacity.
It’s also worth noting that Asensio has already shown that he enjoys the big stage. His 11 club goals this term include two goals in the clasico against Barcelona and one in the Champions League Semi-Final against Bayern. That suggests he will not be overawed by the pressure cooker World Cup environment.
Lopetegui has experimented with the system during his reign, operating a three-man defence in an early qualifier in Albania but has generally settled upon a 4-3-3 formation and that’s how they are likely to line up in Russia.
The most predictable part of this side is certainly at the back. Barring injury David de Gea will start in goal and this could well be the tournament where he really starts to cement his status as the top goalkeeper in world football, particularly with Manuel Neuer not fully fit.
In front of him, the back four picks itself really and has a familiar look to it with two Real Madrid men in the shape of Dani Carvajal and Sergio Ramos alongside Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba of Barcelona. While Ramos in particular does have a mistake in him, it’s still a very solid and hugely experienced back-line with a multitude of major honours between them. The full-backs have both had pretty good seasons and will be expected to bomb forward, particularly in group games against Morocco and Iran when Spain will be up against two sides that are strong at the back and will look to park the bus.
The central midfield three is where it starts to get a little bit interesting. Sergio Busquets hasn’t actually featured for Spain since November but the Barcelona man looks a certain starter. Despite a slight decline, Andres Iniesta will surely keep his place alongside him but Lopetegui may have to manage the 34 year old, who is unlikely to be capable of playing seven matches in a month. It seems certain he will be rested for at least one of the group games.
The third spot in central midfield looks like a straight fight between Koke of Atletico Madrid and Thiago Alcântara of Bayern. Both have benefited from the regime change in 2016 with Lopetegui clearly trusting both men but when push comes to shove, there is only likely to be room for one of them in Spain’s strongest eleven. Right now Thiago perhaps has the edge but it’s one of the areas the coach will be looking at when the warm-up games take place.
Up top, there are many different ways Spain could go and they will most likely chop and change depending on the opposition and situation in the game. Isco and David Silva are both all but guaranteed to start but the final place in the side appears up for grabs. The exciting young talent of Marco Asensio got the nod in that dominant win over the Italians and brings a bit of much-needed pace into the side. While that would leave Spain without a recognised striker, they’ve proved they can go without a genuine nine if required and it’s perhaps no coincidence that some of their best displays have come when they’ve opted for that approach.
Their best striker is Diego Costa, who did net five goals in five games during qualifying but still didn’t really look like quite the natural fit for this team. Tiki-taka isn’t really his thing and he hasn’t been prolific since rejoining Atletico Madrid, which makes Asensio perhaps the more likely option to complete the front-line when the tournament kicks off while Iago Aspas is likely to be used from the bench after another excellent season in Vigo.
Possible Starting 11:
De Gea, Jordi Alba, Ramos, Pique, Dani Carvajal, Iniesta, Busquets, Thiago, Silva, Isco, Asensio
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