Facing two of the World Cup’s top four teams in a matter of days could have made for a rocky start to Luis Enrique’s tenure as Spain Coach. England at Wembley was closely followed by Croatia’s trip to Elche and after the tumult of Russia 2018, there was every chance things were going to get worse before they got better.
Marcus Rashford’s early goal in the first fixture of the Nations League double-header could have rocked a weaker-willed collection of players. Maybe if it had taken Saul Niguez more than two minutes to equalise, it would have. The result was not secure even when Rodrigo Moreno put Spain in front just after the half-hour, and a few David De Gea saves were needed to preserve the victory. It was job done, but only just.
A few days later it was Croatia, in the visitors’ first competitive game since losing the World Cup final to France. Memories of that brilliant team were fresh in the mind, particularly the contrast to the Spanish disarray after Julen Lopetegui’s sudden departure. Spain, at home, should still have been considered favourites in UEFA Nations League betting, but Croatia’s blend of ability and aggression could have ended La Roja’s revival before it really began.
What followed was unexpected, and astounding. Spain’s 6-0 win over the World Cup runners-up was an almost perfect performance. Enrique acknowledged afterwards that in that kind of form, few countries will cope against his players. The problem is, not all opposition Spain face will be on the come-down of the greatest international experience of their careers, with crucial players - such as Real Madrid’s Luka Modric - fighting against summer fatigue.
Indeed, the true test comes now, a few months into the season, when the Nations League concept is embedded deeper in football’s psyche and the prospect of relegation from Nations League A is real. Croatia haven’t scored a competitive goal since the World Cup final. Their only win since beating England in July came against Jordan. And yet, a win over Spain followed by victory against the Three Lions could see Zlatko Dalic’s side win the group. It’s all to play for, and, in Russia at least, Croatia came up big in the clutch.
Spain also have to contend with the partisan Zagreb crowd, with Croatia’s two-game stadium ban served, and that changes the dynamic again. The fresh faces in Enrique’s squad might never have experienced anything like what’s waiting, and the experience of Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets will be pivotal among the ferocious home support. Anodyne Wembley, with its children, day-trippers and corporate box networkers, will feel a long way away.
Losing 3-2 to England in Seville should have given Enrique and Spain a wake-up call, reminded them that there is a lot left to do before La Roja again sit atop the football world. It was a thrilling enough game that it doesn’t feel like Spain’s momentum has been lots, only slowed. If the games against England and Croatia got Enrique’s tenure off to a strong start, this trip to Croatia could be the making of his team.