For so long chronic underachievers on the international stage, everything changed for Spain two years ago at Euro 2008. That campaign in Austria and Switzerland, a campaign which ended with glory in Vienna, saw the team establish itself as the most attractive national side in the world game, a team founded on the principles of possession and quick, sharp passing football.
Since then Luis Aragones, who led Spain to that first triumph in 44 years, has departed and been replaced at the helm by the popular Vicente Del Bosque who has gone about building on his predecessor’s success and making very slight but effective alterations to what was already an exceptionally well-balanced side. Barcelona’s Gerard Pique, arguably the best centre-half in world football, has incrementally replaced Carlos Marchena at the back, with Xabi Alonso gradually being given more time in the centre of midfield, taking on aspects of the role once carried out by Marcos Senna. However, other than these minor and relatively seamless changes, the Spanish side remains much the same as it was two years ago, but has an added experience and cohesion within the group which, if anything, makes La Furia Roja an even more formidable prospect than they were 24 months ago.
Exemplary in the build-up to the World Cup, Del Bosque’s side set a new record in qualifying by being the first European team ever to progress to the finals with a 100% record, overcoming the likes of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Turkey and Belgium – all strong sides – with a comfort rarely seen at that level. In winning all ten of their fixtures, the campaign saw Spain become firmly established as the form team in international football and the favourites for this summer’s World Cup, a tag the country has never been saddled with in the past.
With a fully fit squad Del Bosque has demonstrated a preference for a basic 4-4-2 shape, the system which best accommodates the substantial talents of the team’s very best players, and is made flexible by the quick pass-and-move football Spain play. Iker Casillas, one of the game’s most consistently excellent goalkeepers over the last decade, is an automatic selection between the posts, and is protected by a back four centred around the Barcelona pairing of Pique and Carlos Puyol at the heart of the defence. With Alonso playing the holding role in the midfield, Xavi, an unrivaled passer of the ball, is given total creative license and is the architect of the vast majority of Spain’s attacking endeavours, knitting the midfield to the attack with an incredible ease. In the wide areas Andres Iniesta and Valencia’s David Silva continually switch flanks and change their angle of attack to torment opposition full-backs, whilst David Villa and Fernando Torres represent one of the most potent strike forces in the game. Spain are even strong from the bench, with the likes of Pedro, Jesus Navas, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas, Juan Mata and Fernando Llorente all adding their own unique qualities and giving the squad an unparalleled strength in depth.
Looking for weaknesses in this Spanish side is often a futile task, but they can be exposed at full-back where Sergio Ramos can be over-enthusiastic to get forward on occasion and, as a result, is caught out of position all too regularly. Similarly, on the left side of the defence, Villarreal’s Joan Capdevila is the most technically limited member of the starting eleven and, lacking in pace, can be exposed by top-class right midfielders. However, to exploit these weaknesses the opposition must first wrestle the ball away from the Spanish, something that has proved a near-impossible task for many teams in recent years.
Spain undoubtedly arrive in South Africa as the favourites to claim the first world title in their country’s history and, with a pool of some of the modern era’s most technically gifted players at their disposal, should be serious contenders in the latter stages of the competition. It remains to be seen whether or not Brazil’s new robust game plan will be able to disrupt Del Bosque’s men, but, beyond the South Americans, it is hard to see how the Spanish can be stopped. It could be a historic summer for La Roja.
Probable starting XI: Casillas (Real Madrid); Ramos (Real Madrid), Pique (Barcelona), Puyol (Barcelona), Capdevila (Villarreal); Iniesta (Barcelona), Alonso (Real Madrid), Xavi (Barcelona), Silva (Valencia); Villa (Barcelona), Torres (Liverpool)
The Road to South Africa: 1st in UEFA qualifying Group 5
World Ranking: 2nd