Early exits at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 appeared to show the sun was setting on Spain’s most successful generation after three consecutive major tournament triumphs at Euros 2008 and 2012 either side of La Roja’s only ever World Cup title in South Africa in 2010.
However, since succeeding Vicente del Bosque, Lopetegui has blended the experienced remnants of the World Cup winning side with a host of graduates from the under-21 team he led to a European title in 2013.
The results have been spectacular. Sixteen games into his reign, Lopetegui has yet to taste defeat.
Spain’s qualifying record of nine wins and a draw, scoring 36 goals and conceding just three, left Italy a distant second in Group G and on the brink of their World Cup abyss.
Just over a year after being dumped out of Euro 2016 by the Azzurri, Spain thrashed Italy 3-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu in September in a style reminiscent of the “tiki-taka” short-passing game that bamboozled opponents and won fans across the world between 2008 and 2012.
“I believe that the best thing a coach has to do is optimise and make the most of the virtues of his players”, Lopetegui told Barcelona-based sports newspaper Mundo Deportivo on Wednesday.
“I think that the best quality of Spanish players is their passing ability and individual technique. Logically, we have to take advantage of that.”
Lopetegui said it would be a mistake to try to adopt the Italian “door-bolt” defensive system.
“Spain can’t play catenaccio because that wouldn’t make the most of the quality of our players.”
YOUTH AND EXPERIENCE
The core that has survived from Spain’s heyday contains Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, David Silva, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.
Some of the energy and hunger missing in recent tournaments has been added by the likes of David de Gea, Koke, Isco, Thiago Alcantara and Alvaro Morata who plug the gaps left by Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, Xavi and Xabi Alonso.
Morata’s stunning start to life at Chelsea has also eased a long-running void up front since David Villa and Fernando Torres were at their peak.
Villa, now 35 and plying his trade with New York City in Major League Soccer, was even recalled to the squad for the demolition of Italy two months ago.
Sometimes in the glory years Spain would line up without a recognised striker, and in this qualifying campaign the goals again flowed from a richly talented midfield.
David Silva is now Spain’s fourth highest goalscorer of all-time with 11 in 15 matches, whilst Isco has netted six goals in his last nine caps.
Spain may have to do it the hard way in Russia. Their seeding in pot two means the likes of Brazil, Germany or France could be waiting in the group stages.
“We know we’ll get a big team for sure,” added Lopetegui. “All the seeded teams are dangerous.
“We take what comes with confidence, believing in ourselves.”
Without doubt a revitalised Spain will be the lower seeded side others most want to avoid on Friday.
— Selección Española de Fútbol (@SeFutbol) November 14, 2017
Provided by AFP Sport
The 2018 World Cup finals draw takes place in Moscow on Friday, with the likes of England and Spain hoping to avoid a so-called ‘group of death’ against tough opponents who could feasibly end their interest in the tournament after three games.
Here, we look at five other such groups in World Cup history.
1970 (BRAZIL, CZECHOSLOVAKIA, ENGLAND, ROMANIA)
The term ‘grupo de la muerte’ was coined for this group by journalists in the host nation Mexico. England were world champions at the time, Brazil had won it in 1958 and 1962 and the Czechs were the team Brazil beat in the 1962 final.
England were defeated 1-0 by Brazil in the searing heat of Guadalajara, in a match famous for Gordon Banks’ incredible save from a Pele header, Bobby Moore’s sublime tackle on Jairzinho and the image of Moore and Pele swapping shirts at the end.
England made it out of the group but West Germany exacted revenge for 1966 in the quarter-finals. Brazil won the World Cup for a third time, and the line-up that thrashed Italy 4-1 regularly wins ‘greatest team of all time’ polls.
1982 (ARGENTINA, ITALY, BRAZIL)
Slightly different to all the other groups featured here, as this one came in the second stage of the finals in Spain.
It pitted a free-wheeling Brazil side featuring the likes of Zico, Falcao and Socrates against an Argentina team featuring Diego Maradona, plus eventual winners Italy.
Italy and Brazil both beat Argentina and their head-to-head encounter was a classic settled by a Paolo Rossi hat-trick. The Azzurri advanced to the semi-finals as group winners and beat West Germany in the final.
1986 (DENMARK, SCOTLAND, URUGUAY, WEST GERMANY)
Alex Ferguson’s Scotland faced a daunting task in Mexico as they took on 1982 runners-up West Germany, the great ‘Danish Dynamite’ side featuring star names such as Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjaer and reigning South American champions Uruguay.
Denmark topped the group by winning all three of their matches, including a 6-1 hammering of Uruguay, but the Germans went the furthest by again reaching the final – this time losing to Argentina.
Scotland led 1-0 against West Germany as Gordon Strachan tried – and failed – to vault an advertising hoarding in celebration but ultimately lost 2-1, and took their solitary point against Uruguay, who had Jose Batista sent off in the first minute.
2002 (ARGENTINA, ENGLAND, NIGERIA, SWEDEN)
David Beckham and England were pitted against Argentina – the team against whom Beckham had been sent off in the previous World Cup and who had knocked England out.
An opening draw against Sweden heaped extra pressure on the game against Argentina, which was settled by a Beckham penalty.
England drew their final group game with Nigeria and got through to the quarter-finals, where they were undone by Ronaldinho’s free-kick for eventual winners Brazil.
2014 (COSTA RICA, ENGLAND, ITALY, URUGUAY)
Greg Dyke, the football Association chairman at the time, famously made a throat-slitting gesture at the time this draw came out, and it ultimately proved lethal for England who were out after defeats to fellow former world champions Italy and Uruguay.
Playing Italy in the extreme humidity of the Amazon jungle in Manaus didn’t help Roy Hodgson’s men.
Uruguay also fell by the wayside and star striker Luis Suarez sank his teeth into the shoulder of Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini in their final match and was given a nine-match international ban.
Provided by Press Association Sport
When the World Cup 2018 draw gets under way in Moscow on Friday, all the nations will nervously dread being picked in a ‘Group of Death’.
Get pulled out alongside several of the globe’s grandest sides, and their stay in Russia could shorten drastically.
Unlike previous editions, all four pots this time are based on FIFA rankings – with the exception of hosts Russia who are automatically assigned to Position A1.
This has opened up the possibilities for a more stringent selection, especially as two UEFA sides can be placed together.
Here, we select what could be the toughest group possible.
The rabble that was humiliated on home soil four years ago has been utterly elevated by the ascensions of superstar forward Neymar and congenial head coach Tite.
There is world-class quality throughout this squad. Gone are the days of unconvincing journeyman like Fred leading the line.
In a lethal 4-3-3 formation, Paris Saint-Germain’s €222 million (Dh967.4m) Neymar and Liverpool genius Philippe Coutinho flank rising Manchester City star Gabriel Jesus. Tite’s Corinthians connection is apparent in midfield through Barcelona powerhouse Paulinho and Beijing Guoan’s Renato Augusto, while Internazionale’s Miranda provides vital experience at centre-back.
Brazil were simply incredible during South American’s exacting qualification process, finishing 10 points ahead of second-placed Uruguay with a goal difference of +30.
They will take some stopping this summer.
A changing of the guard under head coach Julen Lopetegui appears likely to bring reward for Spain once again.
Brazil 2014 represented a tournament too far for the likes of goalkeeper Iker Casillas and midfielder Xavi, serial trophy winners for both club an country. The likes of centre-back Gerard Pique, playmaker David Silva and the enduring Andres Iniesta remain for La Fura Rioja, but vital new players have been added to the mix.
Up front, Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata scored five in five during qualifying and looked a better fit than Diego Costa ever did. Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea is also better for his experience as No1 at Euro 2016, while the time is now for Real Madrid attackers Isco and Marco Asensio.
Their strength in depth is only rivalled by Germany and France, with the XI able to withstand any threat. A new ‘Golden Generation’ is emerging.
An air of mystery exists around Asia’s dominant nation.
A lack of funding, weak planning and political isolation should combine to curtail head coach Carlos Queiroz. Yet through the storm and several threats of resignation, the ex-Manchester United assistant has created a regional superpower during his six years in charge.
The power of the collective is key in a squad headlined by rising Rubin Kazan forward Sardar Azmoun, who has 22 goals in 30 international appearances. Persepolis goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand stood behind a defence which conceded just twice – in the last game against Syria – in the third-and-final round of qualifying.
Team Melli only gained one point in their three group matches at World Cup 2014. Yet beaten finalists Argentina will never forget how hard they pushed them in a match decided by Lionel Messi’s solitary 91st-minute winner.
The Eagles are back on the global stage and ready to make an impact.
For a region that has long existed as a hotbed of football talent, it is no surprise to see how strong their squad is. Manchester United anchorman Nemanja Matic is one of the Premier League’s best players, left-back Aleksandar Kolarov has been reborn at Roma, the creative Dusan Tadic got four goals and seven assists as his nation stormed to top spot in UEFA qualifying’s Group D and Lazio’s emerging Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is one of Serie A’s dominant midfield figures.
The Serbs aren’t without their weaknesses. Caretaker coach Mladen Krstajic has stressed a desire to bring in new blood, while veteran Zenit Saint Petersburg defender Branislav Ivanovic has shown signs of creaking.
But any nation hoping for an easy team from pot four will reel at the suggestion of playing them.