Spain hope to reign again and retain World Cup in Brazil
Like a fine rioja, Spain are ageing with grace, class and all the subtleties of a team that has borne the fruits of their labour. They fly to Brazil, knowing there is a chance they are handing the baton to another opponent that has the next generation of superstars.
A team, which on its day can tear apart anything in front of them, pass and probe themselves into footballing records, and mould blueprints that even Pep Guardiola can dream of. As a result, it is no surprise to see them billed as 7/1 fourth favourites to not only win, but retain the trophy.
Thanks chiefly to Barcelona and Real Madrid football clubs, the Spanish production line continues to evolve. Carles Puyol’s never-say-die nature will undoubtedly be missed. The centre half has been like the Rock of Gibraltar at the back for the best part of decade, though like a father to a son and in-keeping with Spanish culture his experience and knowledge has been handed down to Gerard Pique. Their relationship helped to win Barcelona trophies galore.
Sergio Ramos’s versatility just may well prove vital this summer, despite his best position being in the middle of a back four. Right back Alvaro Arbeloa will definitely miss out due to injury. Jordi Alba on the other flank has also struggled with fitness problems this term, which could mean that coach Vicente del Bosque pragmatically moves Cesar Azpilicueta to the left. He has been consistent there for Chelsea this season, however he is predominantly right footed, which could affect attacking balance. Adequate strength in depth could see Javi Martinez move into the middle to partner Pique, though he has proved more adept in his natural midfield anchor man role. Raul Albiol provides adequate cover, and although he lacks pace makes up for it in experience and positional sense.
Atletico Madrid right back Juan Fran has been a mainstay for his club and a vital part of their attacking width. Carlo Ancelotti has utilised Daniel Carvajal to great effect in there this season for Real Madrid, and Del Bosque will be encouraged to know he has suitable strength in the position.
Iker Casillas, undoubtedly the most decorated goalkeeper in global football, is perhaps the first name on the team sheet, with several others down merely seconds later. His only weakness; perhaps from crosses, he has the reflexes and speed even at the age of 32, to compensate. Waiting in the wings, following Victor Valdes’ injury is Pepe Reina who has looked revitalised under Rafa Benitez at Napoli, and David de Gea who has arguably been Manchester United’s best player this term.
Their midfield when fully fit picks itself. The only questions are, in what shape, playing to what tempo, and adopting which style? Del Bosque’s pragmatism and open mind has won Spain the World Cup and the European Championships. Added to that, he has accomplished literally everything else in domestic football. He is a winner, he knows how to win, his teams know how to win, and he only associates with winners. Seeing a pattern?
Del Bosque does. His ‘tiki taka’ approach to football was adopted at a similar time as Barcelona’s. The only difference; where necessary it evolved and adapted to suit each players’ strengths and weaknesses. For the final of the European Championships, Spain played with six midfielders and no recognised striker. Even the most knowledgeable in football could only guess at how they lined up, the one certainty being; Sergio Busquets patrolled in front of their back four.
Barca puppet masters Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta are expected to join fellow string puller Busquets in the starting XI, and from there it will most likely depend on who Spain play to decide who else starts.
Pick from David Silva, Juan Mata, Jesus Navas, Isco, Cesc Fabregas, and Pedro Rodriguez in the more advanced areas of the pitch; each one known for their ability to rotate at will. Although a question mark still hangs over Mata, he is beginning to repay Manchester United for putting their faith in him. Jorge Resurrección Merodio, more commonly known as Koke has had a sterling campaign under Diego Simeone for Atletico, and could be one of player to really make a breakthrough at the World Cup.
The issue is Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcantara, who is an injury doubt. If he is ruled out, then there is no obvious or natural replacement for Xavi. Xabi Alonso, although not quite as mobile, is likely to deputise in the event of any injury, and will definitely feature in most matches. Asier Illaremendi (Real Madrid) is a viable option, though his lack of experience could mean Del Bosque overlooks him.
Diego Costa is something that Spain haven’t had since Fernando Morientes. An exciting centre forward, Brazilian born, with a prolific conversion rate, he is 25/1 to be the tournament’s top scorer. He has been in clinical form this season, netting 49 times in all competitions, and could yet land in Brazil having won the Champions League.
Fernando Torres, Alvaro Negredo, Fernando Llorente, and David Villa are all vying for the remaining striker berths. Torres has been in patchy form for Chelsea, though showed at Euro 2012 he can score important goals, claiming the Golden Boot in the process. Villa meanwhile is still an excellent finisher, and his on-the-pitch relationship with Atletico teammate Costa, not to mention Koke, could see him given the nod ahead of Negredo and Llorente.
Having entertained for six years, this will undoubtedly be Spain’s biggest test. Pitted in a group against the Netherlands, Chile and Australia, if they can come through unscathed, they have a very good chance of going all the way.
It is rumoured that the Dutch could be distracted this summer, with manager Louis van Gaal set to leave after the tournament, and team spirit within the camp expected to downbeat. If so this could prove vital for Spain, in their opening Group B match. Considering the attacking strength of both sides, there will be goals and Spain are 9/1 to record a 2-1 win.
It could all depend on whether Costa can take his form to Brazil and deliver; surrounded by a medley of creative talent, he can make a name for himself in the country he once called home. Spain may resemble an ageing wine, though they could still leave a sharp taste in the mouths of their opponents.