‘We’re not the best anymore.’ ‘End of the cycle.’ ‘La Floja.’ Looking at the headlines from the sports papers in Spain the day after the 2-0 defeat to Italy that saw them knocked out of Euro 2016, it is safe to say that there is a sense of dejection and forlornness regarding the Spain team.
The last one is from El Mundo Deportivo, and it rather neatly sums up the consensus surrounding Spain’s exit – it is a play on words of La Roja, and literally means ‘poor’ or ‘weak,’ which is unfortunately the opinion of Spain’s attempt to retain their European Championship crown.
Initially, they did have a good crack at making history with three straight Euro successes. There were encouraging performances in the wins over Czech Republic and particularly Turkey, but with all due respect to those sides, they were never going to be the top-level opposition that would cause Vicente del Bosque’s charges a problem.
Nobody was forgetting the World Cup 2014 showing, and there were always fears that against nations with a little more penetration on the counter-attack, La Roja would struggle.
Those fears were realised in the final group game against Croatia, in which a win or a draw would have sufficed to seal top spot and a place in the more favourable side of the draw for the knockout stages.
It looked as though that was going to happen when Alvaro Morata scored his third goal in as many games to give Spain the lead, but an equaliser on the stroke of half-time changed things. The response was simply not enough and yes, if Sergio Ramos had scored his penalty things could be looking a lot different now, but he didn’t, and Ivan Perisic punished the miss severely.
The Round of 16 tie was bound to be a potential problem for Spain, and kudos to Italy Coach Antonio Conte, who masterminded the victory with a tactical plan that gave Spain the least amount of time possible on the ball in the final third of the pitch.
The fact that Sunderland reject Emanuele Giaccherini covered the most ground in a single game out of every player at Euro 2016 tells its own story. Italy wanted revenge for their defeat in the Euro 2012 final, and they hounded and harassed Spain at every opportunity, to the point of nullification.
Questions must be raised over some of Del Bosque’s decisions, though. Admittedly, bringing on Aritz Aduriz and Lucas Vasquez were positive moves, but the midfield battle was being lost consistently, and perhaps Koke or Thiago Alcantara would have been more effective. It also makes the decision to not bring Saul Niguez even more baffling, as the game would have suited his intense and industrious style.
Gerard Pique dismissed talk of Spain’s success coming to an end after the game, and remained optimistic for the future. “I wouldn’t speak of the end of a cycle,” he said, according to AS. “What is certain is that this team doesn’t have the level of the World Cup or the last Euros. There’s promise but level isn’t the same and you have to accept that. Now we have to get better to go to Russia and compete with the big teams.”
It is more than likely that Del Bosque will not be taking the team to Russia, and that is for the best. The 65-year-old has made history as an international Coach and deserves enormous praise and respect, but it is time for new blood and fresh ideas to reinvent La Roja, with the next group of young and enormously talented Spaniards vying for a place in the next tournament squad.