Spain are hovering on the verge of World Cup qualification after their 2-0 win over Finland on Friday, but are looking anything but triple champions. A testing qualification process for Brazil has been punctuated by ultimate failure in the Confederations Cup and a series of inconclusive friendlies that have threatened to undermine their world beater status.
With only next month’s home games against Belarus and Georgia remaining, qualification for Brazil does appear a given, but La Roja have struggled against opponents they were expected to brush aside with ease. A 1-0 away win over Georgia was secured only by Roberto Soldado’s 86th minute strike, while Spanish complacency gave Finland a point in a 1-1 draw in Gijon.
With his strikers either injured or out of form, Del Bosque has varied his selection and tactics, trying different approaches and, uncharacteristically, taking risks. Deploying his False 9 system in a 4-0 demolition of Belarus, the Coach saw Pedro Rodriguez step up to the plate with a hat-trick. Repeating the same tactics days later at the Vicente Calderon, however, Del Bosque saw his men lower the tempo and drop two points against France, despite taking an early lead.
Similarly, the Coach made a major tactical change in the Confederations Cup in the summer. Forced to do without Xavi Alonso, Del Bosque abandoned his ‘double pivot’ midfield system against Nigeria in favour of a more orthodox approach, but his men were over-run by a rampant Brazil in the final. The rhino-skinned 62-year-old has been under fire ever since, but La Roja remain unconvincing and nobody – including, it seems, the Coach – knows what the new Spain will look like.
Friday’s three points in Helsinki were only assured when Alvaro Negredo netted four minutes from time, Jordi Alba having given Spain a first-half lead. Despite the unconvincing nature of the win, Del Bosque told reporters that he wanted to use last night’s friendly in Geneva to give pitch time to fringe players and those knocking on the door of the national squad. As with other games throughout the year, however, his hands were partly tied by who was available, with David Silva and Isco Alarcon pulling out due to injury.
As expected, Victor Valdes started between the posts, with Pepe Reina playing the last half hour, amid continued speculation over Iker Casillas’ club situation. Nacho Monreal, Javi Garcia, Santi Cazorla and Soldado were all starters too, in a line-up that ultimately proved less effective on the pitch than it had looked on paper, but it is difficult to know what conclusions their performances led the Coach to draw.
On the other hand Soldado, whose first-half strike equalised for Spain, and Jesus Navas, who spared La Roja’s blushes with a stoppage-time leveller, should expect to be first picks for the final two qualifiers, having performed well in the matches that matter as well as the friendlies. If they are, then they will be evidence of a new Spain side that is gradually evolving through the qualification process, but still has a long way to go before it returns to vintage form.