Thursday October 12 2017
Spain to reign again?

Sky Sports’ Jon Driscoll on whether Spain are likely to reclaim their world title next year in Russia after qualifying unbeaten for World Cup 2018…

Firstly, I am not saying that Spain will definitely win the World Cup. It is frankly too random an event to predict with such confidence, coming at the end of a long season for European clubs and consisting of between three and seven matches.

Transpose that onto La Liga seven rounds in, and Valencia could be champions (five points from their first three games, an extra-time win over Levante and three more victories). Barcelona and Atletico Madrid (on penalties in the final) have also started well enough to win a competition as short and unpredictable as the World Cup.

Every four years at the quarter-final stage there’s widespread agreement that it’s up for grabs. Then one team wins it and we start convincing ourselves their success had been inevitable. Obviously Spain’s Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 treble marked out that evolving squad as all-time greats; they weren’t perfect but they delivered.

So should Julen Lopetegui’s side be considered as one of the three or four most likely to win? Yes, along with Brazil, Germany and France.

I asked around and the position most Spain fans would like to see improved is the No 9 but I have faith in Alvaro Morata and it is just a shame his international career has been a little stop-start. Rodrigo Moreno isn’t a classic centre-forward but looked a neat fit in the system against Albania and scored a superb goal. It’s just a shame he missed a hat-trick of easier chances.

If Diego Costa thrives back at Atleti then he would be another option although I felt he upset the system at Brazil 2014 and left the impression that Vicente del Bosque kept picking him out of a sense of obligation that he had rejected his home country.

There is a potential problem in central defence. I know they have two world class players in that position so let’s spare the tears but Gerard Pique is under intense pressure at the moment and that was reflected in his performance against Albania when he was Spain’s worst player.

I’m no psychologist, but worrying whether Sergio Ramos and Shakira love you while shouldering the hopes of an emergent nation and being whistled by your own fans might be a lot for one man to contend with. A fit, focussed and fully functioning Pique cuts Spain’s World Cup odds considerably. Albania’s boss Christian Panucci praised Pique’s big balls – Spain need those cojones in Russia!

The midfield must give Lopetegui restful nights. This has been an artful qualification. Take the second goal against Albania; 52 seconds of possession from goal kick to finish. The move caught fire in the final third as debutant Alvaro Odriozola scooped a pass to David Silva who found Koke who found Isco who pirouetted and sent the ball ripping past the keeper.

For the third they won the ball in the opposition half and this time Isco danced between Albanians to open up the move. Odriozola hung up a cross and Thiago steamed in to score. It was that combination of control and penetration that made Lopetegui’s side look as strong as del Bosque’s version that slaughtered Italy in the Euro 2012 final.

Spain had less of the ball against Albania than England had against Slovenia, but England’s was the sort of possession that makes the old-schoolers scream, “Get it up there!” By contrast, Spain’s players received the ball under pressure, moved in on purposefully and fashioned chances for Rodrigo to miss.

The midfield depth means Spain’s creativity won’t disappear with one or two injured stars (sorry Wales). A second string beat Israel, albeit in a drab game lit up only by Asier Illaramendi’s thunderbolt. The presence of Isco and Marco Asensio means Spain won’t panic if Andres Iniesta or David Silva don’t make it to Russia. Juan Mata and Ander Herrera are outsiders to make the squad, and Manu Trigueros has never been capped. The creative depth is almost unfair.

So can Spain win the World Cup? Yes, definitely but luck will play a part. And after all, with a little luck, Spain’s third choice squad would have a decent chance of becoming world champions. But if all goes to hell, we can at least try our luck here.

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