It’s been just 13 days since Julen Lopetegui was sacked. Prior to that, Spain were one of the World Cup favourites, intending to put their 2014 campaign behind them and relight the fire of South Africa four years before that.
Fernando Hierro was appointed just one day before the tournament commenced, expected to simply guide the ship and not make wholesale changes. However, the time has come for Hierro to act, sooner than expected. Drastic changes are needed, otherwise La Roja risk going home earlier than planned.
Spain topped Group B by the skin of their teeth, from a pool that developed into a much more challenging contest than they’d have liked. As such, progression was attained in very unconvincing fashion. The gamble that Spain and FA chief Luis Rubiales took on Hierro will ultimately be determined by the country’s World Cup performance, but if their campaign so far is anything to go by then it seems the gamble is unlikely to pay off, drawing against an already-eliminated Morocco in the dying minutes of the match.
Since appointing the former Real Madrid captain, Spain – being the tournament’s first big storyline – were left frustrated by Portugal, when a last-minute Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick saw the Portuguese celebrate as if they’d won. That was followed by a jittery 1-0 victory over Iran and now the late, late equaliser against Morocco. Indeed, the group stage could’ve ended very differently for them.
Spain emerged from their opener against Portugal looking like one of the strongest sides in Russia, despite conceding late on. The main talking point, however, was a rare David de Gea mistake, which led to a goal. His performances have led the Spanish Press to ask whether he should start in the knockout rounds, the Manchester United No 1 going on to make just one save in La Roja’s three group games, conceding on four occasions.
However, all the blame can’t be shouldered by the goalkeeper. In Spain’s previous two matches, their build-up play has looked predictable, slow and vulnerable on the counterattack. Some of their stars need to shine, otherwise another lousy performance may end up putting them on the plane home.
Then there’s the Diego Costa dilemma. His robust, dogged style was a handful for the two centre-backs in the Portugal game, while he is Spain’s top scorer with three goals. However, the Atletico Madrid striker wasn’t so deadly against Morocco, having been unable to break down the resolute wall in front of him.
Hierro will now be more than aware that something needs to give. It may be the introduction of Iago Aspas over Costa after the Celta Vigo striker scored the goal to offer his country redemption. His pace and movement make him an invaluable option for trying to break teams down, VAR rightfully allowed his goal, and now he may have now given his Coach a headache for the last-16 tie with Russia on Sunday.
Despite that, the biggest concern of all is the defence, which worryingly appears to lack pace and movement, as well as aerial prowess. Gerard Pique at 31 years of age and Sergio Ramos at 32 are starting to show cracks, suggesting the formidable duo are now past their best. Therefore, the pair cannot be expected to patrol the whole of their own half.
Ramos was beaten in the air by Malaga’s Youssef En-Nesyri, giving Morocco a 2-1 lead with an expertly-placed header. Similarly, the Madrid stopper was at fault yet again for the first goal, a mix-up with Andres Iniesta meaning there was no catching Khalid Boutaib.
Russia await Spain in the first knockout phase and don’t seem as dynamic as Morocco, but the hosts will undoubtedly have watched the game in Kaliningrad, believing they have a real chance of progression. That’s unless Hierro can prove he’s more than just a big-name caretaker.