This is Spain

Spain in the World Cup is like butter on bread: without La Roja competing, it’s mere crust. That’s the opinion held by many who hope to see Spain lift the trophy at the end of the games. After the early crash of 2014, many will want to know what changes have been made to ensure that horror does not repeat.

Take heart. A new head coach has not only qualified the squad but done so unbeaten. His secret is a mix of experience in the form of World Cup winners and new talent. The skill in this squad is considerable—and they are expected to bring the fury.

The road to Russia

As the winners in 2010, Spain should have been contenders in the 2014 games. But if you blinked in Brazil, you missed them. They exited in the group stages in 2014 to lick their wounds and examine what had gone wrong. Many blamed the stagnation from then-coach Vicente Del Bosque, but the squad had aged out of their dominance.

This time around, Julen Lopetegui has taken charge and Spain have managed an easy qualification for Russia. They went unbeaten in their UEFA Group G qualifiers – including a 3-0 win over runners-up Italy.

Lopetegui took the job after crashing out of coaching Porto, but his well-rounded mix of Liga playing experience and deep understanding of Spain’s famous tiki-taka style could set him up as a legend. His well-timed changes in the form of cutting dead-weight Cesc Fabregas and Marcos Alonso from the squad to form a sleeker machine have so far proven successful.

It is a new era, but is the coach, his changes, and time enough to get Spain to lift the cup again? Let’s take a look.

How do they play?

Most followers will be familiar with the term “tiki-taka.” It’s the brand of short-pass football made famous by Pep Guardiola during his time at Barcelona and developed in the national team by Luis Aragonés. The mistakes in 2014 can be partially blamed on the age of the team and the a failure to have a plan beyond tiki-taka – a failure well-prepared opponents were only too happy to pounce on.

Del Bosque’s retirement allowed Lopetegui to take a fresher approach. He gave younger players such as Marco Asensio a chance. As a result, the current mix of experience and youth makes for a strong side headed to Russia — almost half of this year’s World Cup roster have never competed in this tournament or the European Championship.

The forwards are the worrying factor.

Diego Costa will get the spotlight here, but his somewhat lacklustre season at Atletico Madrid is worrying, and his failure to flow with passing is a concern. All-time Spain goal scorer David Villa exited the squad after the 2014 calamity and that may leave La Roja relying on their usual false forward gambit. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Asensio is capable of playing that role and has had a solid season at Real Madrid.

La Roja are capable of playing that short, quick passing game, but this squad has the ability to play other ways while maintaining possession. Their lack of a dominant centre-forward means they won’t be able to play a counterattacking style and will need to keep a hold of possession.

Who are their star players?

The leathery-tough back line of Sergio Ramos, Gerard Piqué, and Jordi Alba will be formidable and that’ll be key to La Roja’s perseverance. The versatile and skilled midfield of the likes of Koke, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, and David Silva should manage any challenges quite confidently.

This tournament will be Iniesta’s final international one, and his measured approach and masterful technical skills will be key. Isco has done a fine job with Spain in ways he hasn’t always in league play in passing. Thiago, who managed to transform his lukewarm stint at Barcelona into dynamite at Bayern Munich, is ready to apply that success to international wins. He’s fast and clever with the ball, but also able to move back for others. Thiago may well emerge as a star in Russia.

Manchester United’s David De Gea is a dream in goal. Because Spain conceded just three goals in of ten matches in their qualifiers, De Gea is going to be a pivotal part of Spain’s success in Russia.

How far will they go?

With a cement-tough defence and midfield wizardry, Spain have a solid chance of making the semi-finals.

Spain need to break the cycle of relying on their talent alone to win a tournament. If they’re able to buckle down and force their dominance on an opponent, then there’s no doubt that they can go far.

Lopetegui will have to bring something special in the form of detailed tactics in order to go further. Still, hope springs eternal for La Roja, and the squad has its share of experienced champions which could bode well.

What to watch for

If Ramos and Busquets can manage to keep their tempers in check, we’ll see a solid defensive wall that the rest of the team can build from. If the forwards fail to dominate, then the midfield will need to be clever with a false forward. Spain, luckily, is very good at that.

The first match sees Spain face off against neighbours and rivals Portugal on June 15. This highly anticipated meet should bring decent fireworks, and it should also give a good idea of the Group B leadership. If Spain can’t take the lead here, then it’s going to be time for total change.

If they do finish top of their group, a potential mouth watering tie against Egypt (Salah vs Ramos round two) is sure to be a must-see.

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