Spain, favourites again

Clint Dempsey found Jozy Altidore on the outside of the box and using all his strength wriggled free to go one-on-one with Iker Casillas who he beat to put his side a goal up. With 15 minutes left to play, a Landon Donovan cross was not dealt with by an unaware Sergio Ramos and Dempsey took full advantage, hitting the ball from under the Real Madrid defender’s nose to put his side two goals to the good. And, that was how it stayed. The USA had won and were on their way to the Final. Spain were going home.

It was a result nobody expected. As European champions Spain were everyone’s favourite to progress to the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup. A showdown with Brazil was what the organisers and fans were all hoping for. But, it did not happen. Against all odds, the Americans brought an end to Spain’s two-year, 35-match unbeaten streak to earn a place in the final for themselves.

Four years on and Spain are once again favourites to make the final – and with good reason. Since that unexpected defeat to the USA, Vicente del Bosque’s side have gone on to conquer all before them.

Twelve months after their fateful Confederations Cup debut, La Roja claimed their first ever World Cup triumph. Two years later as defending champions they then won their third European championship to make it three major international tournaments won in a row – a feat never achieved before. Suffice to say, it has been a period of unprecedented and unparalleled success.

And yet, the hunger to win remains. “This generation of players still want to win trophies,” Fernando Torres recently said, while Cesc Fabregas has warned: “we are treating this competition as if it were a World Cup or a European Championship.” Juan Mata was more to-the-point with his words: “It’d be fantastic if we could reach the final there and win it.”

Del Bosque has lost Xabi Alonso for this summer’s World Cup curtain-raiser yet there is still an abundance of quality within his ranks. Once again, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta will be the lynchpins in midfield alongside Javi Martinez, who is likely to fill in for the absent Xabi Alonso.

At the back, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique will rekindle their central-defensive partnership to be flanked by Cesar Azpilicueta and Jordi Alba. In attack however, it is not so clear as to whether Del Bosque will go for a ‘false 9’ system or one that will employ a true out-and-out striker.

Against Haiti on Saturday night the former Real Madrid boss went with the latter, giving Fernando Torres and Roberto Soldado a chance to shine. Neither really did, though the latter was extremely unlucky to hit the woodwork twice. Meanwhile, Fabregas, who is first choice for the ‘false 9’ role, did score.

Juan Mata was another bright spot for the world champions. Coming off a fine season with Chelsea, the former Valencia man certainly did his chances of playing a key role in Brazil no harm as did Santi Cazorla and Jesus Navas, the Arsenal man scoring a goal while the Manchester City-bound Navas proved a real threat from wide.

Speaking after the game, Del Bosque was content with his side’s display despite only winning by a 2-1 margin against the minnows. However, given the heat and the quality of the opposition it should have perhaps been expected that Spain would treat the game as the friendly match that it was.

Another friendly awaits La Roja on Tuesday where they face the Republic of Ireland. It will be Del Bosque’s last chance to tinker with his side before they set off to try and win the one major trophy that has yet eluded them.

But, it will not be easy as they will first have to navigate a tricky Group B containing Uruguay, Nigeria and Tahiti before dealing – most likely – with Brazil and Italy in the final stages. Though, as we have seen in recent years one way or another Spain always get there.