The team likeliest to top the supposed ‘Group of Death’ and after winning three major international tournaments on the bounce, Spain’s build up to the World Cup has not been without its doubters and critics. A repeat of the 2010 final against Netherlands will sure to spark tempers that flared from that game in Soccer City, Johannesburg. This time though, Vincent del Bosque will be up against Louis van Gaal, and the Dutch manager’s tactical nous alone could prove to be a sterner test for the vastly experienced Spanish gaffer than their twin threats on the field itself, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben. Chile could prove to be a tricky fixture for the defending champions, as the Spanish defence look to minimise the threat of Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez while keeping a close eye on Juventus’ midfield maestro Arturo Vidal. Spain will look to wrap up second round qualification before their last match against Australia, and they will hope a point from that game will seal that expected top spot.
This team simply knows how to win football matches, and more importantly, international tournaments. The amount of big match experience is overflowing throughout the squad. Further, every member of the squad have won at least one trophy for their clubs in the last two seasons, while around half the squad won something for their club in the last two months.
The way the Spaniards have been playing will keep them in much better stead than the other European teams, especially in the much talked about South American climate. Their methodical, metronomic ‘tiki-taka’ passing and periodical bursts of speed will mean they can probably last longer in the hot and humid surroundings, and the more they keep their opponents away from the ball, the quicker their opponents will tire out. The key for Spain will be to keep the ball right from kick-off and ensure their opponents see as little of the ball as possible, reducing the likelihood of high-tempo opponents from taking an early lead.
And then there’s their eleven midfielders, all with their own array of specialist talents and some so adaptable and versatile they can play anywhere. Javi Martinez and Sergio Busquets will be tasked at filling at centre-back should Spain’s three specialist centre-backs fall to injury. Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Juan Mata and even Santi Cazorla can be so effective as del Bosque’s false nine such that the three specialist forwards might not be required. And then the experienced trio of Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and Andres Iniesta will be at the heart of every Spanish move. Any of the midfielders that are left on the bench will probably walk into any other nation’s first eleven.
With such a strong first eleven and much depth within the 23, it is difficult to pin point this all-conquering Spain side’s weakness. One aspect that might hinder them is the age of their World Cup and European Championship winning stalwarts. That vital core of Xavi, Alonso and Iniesta are 30 or older, and teams with younger and faster midfielders might overrun the Spanish midfield and wrestle control away from the Spaniards – something del Bosque knows cannot happen.
There are also some doubts creeping in over their forward line too. Diego Costa’s hamstring injury could be a gamble that will fail to pay off for del Bosque, like it did for Diego Simeone when Costa only lasted the first nine minutes of the Champions League final. Fernando Torres endured yet another difficult season for Chelsea, but will hope his international pedigree serves him well in this tournament. David Villa, who agreed to move to New York City FC for next year’s MLS campaign while agreeing to play as a ‘guest’ for Melbourne City for the rest of this year, still has his predatory instincts but whether he can still perform at the highest level remains to be seen.
Wild Card: Cesc FabregasThough the Barca man is not guaranteed a start, his versatility will work in his favour when it comes to getting game time or even a spot in the first eleven. With Costa’s injury and the lack of form of the other two forwards, Fabregas may very well be tasked with leading the line for del Bosque again. He has done it before for Spain, and has played there numerous times for Barcelona, so Fabregas is not unfamiliar with this role. Fabregas dropping deep will not only leave space for the likes of Pedro and Iniesta to run in behind, but it will also allow Spain to outnumber the opposition in midfield and ultimately give those ageing legs some extra support.
With Xavi enduring a mixed season at Barca, del Bosque may even task Fabregas to replace Xavi in midfield, either from the start or off the bench when fatigue sets in for the 34-year old. Fabregas will have to maintain the standards Xavi set in the 2010 finals, and though that will be quite a task, the former Arsenal man should be able to rise to the occasion when called upon.
Spain should emerge from the group as top dogs, as well as hoping they can rest some players for the final game against Australia – a luxury most of the European contenders will hope to have, especially in a climate that they are not used to. The possible round of 16 clash with the runners-up of Brazil’s group should be one they will negotiate without much fuss. It is the quarters that they will then most likely meet one of Uruguay, Italy or England.
If Spain negotiate the quarters, their semi-final opponents should be slightly easier and thus another final would not be much of a surprise. Whether they can defeat the other possible finalist, hosts Brazil, will be seen. But if they do meet Brazil again, they will take much from the Confederations Cup final defeat last summer and hope not to suffer a repeat result.