When he looks through the list of midfielders at his disposal, Spain boss Vicente Del Bosque must be almost embarrassed by the depth of talent he can call upon for this summer’s European Championships.
With Barcelona lynchpin Sergio Busquets a certain starter, Del Bosque is also blessed with gifted ball-players such as Thiago Alcantara, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas, all-rounders like Koke, Saul Niguez, Isco and Bruno Soriano, and incisive penetrators Pedro and Lucas Vazquez. Oh, and there’s also that guy who scored the World Cup winning goal in 2010 and has just captained Barcelona to yet another La Liga title, the incomparable Andres Iniesta.
Indeed, Del Bosque has so many brilliant midfielders available, he can afford to leave out a pair of experienced and trusted performers, in the form Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata, who would walk into most nation’s starting line-ups, never mind their squads. But when you look further forward, the talent dries up and it becomes apparent that Spain have a serious problem in the goalscoring department.
Del Bosque, who is expected to retire after the tournament, has only named two centre forwards in his provisional 25-man squad. And they are…wait for it…Alvaro Morata and Aritz Aduriz. One young player who is still developing and only managed seven league goals in 34 games this season, and a 35-year old who has only played 13 minutes of competitive international football. But Del Bosque didn’t really have much choice.
No better choices, anyway, because his other options were one-season wonder (okay, two-season wonder) Diego Costa, who has never looked comfortable at international level and is injured, and over-the-hill Fernando Torres who has enjoyed a purple patch with Atletico Madrid but can hardly be regarded as a world-class talent.
Leaving out Paco Alcacer was a somewhat strange move after he top scored during the qualification process and totalled a creditable 15 goals this season. But the Valencia man has desperately struggled for form in recent weeks, scoring in only two games since January, so can’t really feel too hard done by.
When you look more closely at Spain’s recent record, it becomes even clearer that they will struggle for goals this summer.
Even in a weak group containing the lightweights of Luxembourg, Belarus and Macedonia, they only averaged 2.3 goals per game during qualifying, scoring just once more than Scotland.
In friendlies against stronger opposition they have been even worse. In seven games since their World Cup exit, they have mustered just five goals, drawing blanks against France, Germany, the Netherlands and Romania.
Fortunately for Del Bosque, he can call upon an outstanding defence. Although their personal relationship could be better, the on-pitch pairing of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique is easily the best in the competition, with Juanfran and Jordi Alba offering strong support from full-back.
Thanks to their solid backline and their habitual domination of possession (it’s difficult to score when you can’t get the ball), Spain didn’t concede a single goal in their last eight qualifiers, and can prepare for their title defence confident of more clean sheets.
Considering their lack of striking talent, that’s just as well. A series of 1-0 wins is Del Bosque’s team’s most likely route to success.
With an action-packed week ahead in the football world, Mark Lomas, James Piercy and Alex Rea look ahead, with special guest appearances from Omar Othman and Keith Maisey of Manchester United and Crystal Palace’s UAE Supporters Club.
– Will Liverpool beat Sevilla to win the Europa League?
– Will assist king Mesut Ozil stay at Arsenal?
– Can Crystal Palace upset Manchester United in the FA Cup final?
All this and more in the latest episode of the Sport360 Football Podcast…
L os Angeles or Manchester? Santa Monica Beach or the Ship Canal? Fairfax or the Arndale Centre? Sunshine or rain? The Hollywood Walk of Fame or Weatherfield? For any traveller, the choices probably offer one overwhelming conclusion.
And while it’s simplifying the matter (and being totally unfair on Manchester, whose real charm lies below the surface), it appears to be the dilemma facing one of football’s great nomads.
With Zlatan Ibrahimovic confirming his departure from Paris Saint-German after four outrageously successful seasons (the longest period he has ever spent as a professional at a single club), the clubs currently leading the chase appear to be the Los Angeles Galaxy and Manchester United.
And while it perhaps says something about the curious predicament United are in at present, the ability to buy any player on the planet but forced to compete with an MLS club as their status sinks, there should really be only one destination considered by the Swede.
At 34, you’d usually not begrudge a player of similar stature wanting to play away his final football days in a supposed inferior league: Thierry Henry, Kaka and Steven Gerrard the most recent examples.
But for those three it was clear their powers were on the wane—that acceleration over the first five yards, the speed of thought, an ability to influence a game over 90 minutes; the staple attributes that made them the best in the world were becoming parts of nostalgic film, not current highlights.
For Ibrahimovic, none of that is true. He’s coming to the end of his most prolific season of his 17-year career with 46 goals in 49 games. In fact the most prolific five seasons of his career have all come in his last five campaigns, one with AC Milan and four with PSG.
You can make all sorts of accusations about the quality of French football but there’s been some pretty exceptional strikers who have plied their trade there and none can hold a candle to Ibrahimovic’s consistency, and they weren’t in their 30s.
He’s also been delivering in the Champions League: five goals in 10 games this season; two in six the previous; a Ronaldo-like 10 in eight in 2013-14 and three in nine for 2012-13. He can transfer those numbers to California and become a huge superstar, building ‘Brand Zlatan’ (don’t for a second think he’s directly behind the ‘Dare to Zlatan’ hashtag and wonderfully self-aware instagram posts) but it’ll leave a question mark over his career.
His brief spell in Spain was notable for a spectacular fallout with Pep Guardiola. He did leave with a surprisingly good goal record but, given his inability to become part of one of the world’s greatest-ever teams, his participation is a mere footnote.
And the clubs he’s moved to, at the given times, present a trend: Ajax were the dominant force in the Netherlands, and while his next club Juventus signed him on the back of a poor season, they were still at the time the premier force in Italian football.
He jumped ship to Internazionale when the calciopoli scandal saw them relegated to Serie B, and the Nerazzurri were well placed to take over Juve’s reign. Barcelona, as European champions, was too good to turn down and when that didn’t work out it was a return to Milan who, with Juve in rebuild and a Mourinho-less Inter, had more than a decent run at the title.
And then came PSG, of which no more needs to be said. He’s always secured transfers to clubs either already in the middle of success or in the perfect place to succeed. Although, admittedly, he did exit Inter the summer before they won the treble. Bad planning.
At United, he would be a legend of the Stretford End before even kicking a ball. A Cantona-esque combination of bravado and brilliance. Imagine his status, should he score the goals to land a trophy or help re-establish them among England’s elite.
In LA, he’d be another fading star, passing through. He’s never relied on pace – which could be an issue – but his technique and physical attributes are as good as ever. His hold-up play tailor-made for the English game.
Maybe he just likes winning that much; 11 league titles certainly suggests so. But for one of European football’s truly great strikers of this century there’s still time for one last challenge.