The 2010 World Cup champions head into the 2018 edition of the event with a tag of strong contenders once again, but not out-and-out favourites.
La Roja are blessed with quality all over the pitch, so much so that there was no room for Chelsea trio Alvaro Morata, Cesc Fabregas and Marcos Alonso, nor Arsenal right-back Hector Bellerin, Aletico Madrid forward Vitolo and Bayern Munich mainstay Javi Martinez.
But, this isn’t about the players who failed to book a seat on the plane to Russia. Indeed, on paper, few nations can match an embarrassment of riches which includes nine Real Madrid and Barcelona stars combined.
Julen Lopetegui may have been a surprise appointment back in 2016 when he was tasked with following-up the success of retiring Vicente del Bosque, but the Spain coach saw his team through qualifying with ease and has gone 18 games unbeaten since taking the reins.
In Group B, Cristiano Ronaldo‘s Portugal are up first and then Iran and Morocco make up what is arguably one of the toughest set of fixtures in the tournament.
Spain’s best, most experienced and quality-laden first XI is enough to beat most sides in world football, though it is arguably not as strong as previous years.
Still, Lopetegui’s preferred 4-5-1 system will no doubt be employed in Russia, made up of three narrow central midfield players with one of them more defensively-minded, and then two wingers-cum-forwards supporting a lone striker in the form of Diego Costa.
The tenacity and physicality of the Atletico Madrid hitman gives Spain a focal point in attack which they have be known to almost dismiss or just not be too fussed about in the past. He gives them a presence they will need in a difficult Group B while Isco – a good fit with his technical ability and vision from the left – provides ammunition.
The Whites star carries the burden of a Xavi of old, though in equal measure, David Silva – after a mesmerising season at City – still possesses serious powers of skill despite being 32 years of age and having had the mileage of 119 caps. Don’t forget, Andres Iniesta is still around too.
With Spain’s preferred best back four set in stone and unlikely to change given the genuine lack of replacements aside from Cesar Azpilicueta to come in, that in itself should give their famed midfield axis a degree of comfort knowing each of them is happy to be in possession.
Spain lack pace and movement in the engine room but they have never relied on that kind of ingenuity. Built on the robustness of ball retention, five to 10 yard passes, the ability to keep a settled shape and then the capability of creating something out of nothing, it is a key area of the pitch which could define their chances.
Blaugrana legend Iniesta brings a wealth of experience for his last hurrah on the international stage while Thiago and Koke – both have legs – and are reliable lieutenants to provide the heartbeat of this team as we saw during the 6-1 thumping of Argentina back in March.
Spain will consider their opening World Cup clash against Portugal as a must not lose, as well as must-win. La Roja will not want to create any unnecessary pressure with an open or extravagant system, reminiscent of what happened when they were crushed 5-1 by the Netherlands in game one four years ago.
To ensure this, Lopetegui could tweak the make-up of his personnel and adjust his 4-5-1 formation, opting for the more traditional version of that tactic.
A player of Saul Niguez’s intensity, with the ability to break-up possession, track back and tackle could be preferred to bringing Sergio Busquets in from the cold. He also brings more energy than the ageing Iniesta.
The Atleti star could lead a dynamic and destructive three alongside Koke and Thiago while Isco – operating in a left-midfield role – would be tasked at holding his line and occasionally drifting inside to allow runs from Jordi Alba up and down the flank.
Playing in this way would limit Isco’s creative expression and rely on him working hard to chase and harry. It’s something he is capable of and they are very much attributes his Los Blancos team-mate Lucas Vasquez offers on the opposite flank.
Costa, again, has more strength and power than Marco Asensio and can always get back to defend, though he would need to control his aggression.
Ultimately, the substance of Spain’s 23-man squad exudes calm, maturity and an acute tactical understanding of their own job role, each other’s and what their coach wants.
That can only bring balance and authority to a side that is used to winning things, and toppling teams. As with the case of the first two elevens here, don’t expect the backline to change unless Carvajal suffers a reoccurrence of the hamstring injury which has affected his end to the season with Madrid.
The inclusion of Busquets – a man boasting over a century of caps but is still only 29 – is about as good a back-up as any team could comprehend in midfield. He doesn’t get many headlines but was perhaps only behind Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Samuel Umtiti and Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the performance stakes during Ernesto Valverde side’s double-winning campaign.
With a solid midfield three, inclusive of Isco’s powers of imagination, the option is to give Asensio the chance to shine on the wing. Spain have lacked width and out-and-out pace over the years – and although Spain always tend to play through central areas – the 22-year-old offers something different and in turn could work well in tandem with Silva.
Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata is absent from the Spain squad that will travel to the World Cup.
The 25-year-old managed only 11 league goals for the Blues in the recently concluded season and only appeared as a last-minute substitute in Saturday’s FA Cup final victory over Manchester United.
United goalkeeper David de Gea, Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta, Arsenal’s Nacho Monreal and David Silva of Manchester City are the Premier League players who have made Julen Lopetegui’s 23-man squad.
Morata, who struggled during his debut campaign at Stamford Bridge, is joined by his Chelsea team-mates Cesc Fabregas and Marcos Alonso in missing out on a ticket to Russia.
Shortly after the list was revealed on Monday, Morata tweeted:
Muchísima suerte en el Mundial!! Desde ya estaré apoyando y animando hasta el final como siempre!!
— Álvaro Morata (@AlvaroMorata) May 21, 2018
Arsenal full-back Hector Bellerin, Atletico Madrid forward Vitolo and Bayern Munich midfielder Javi Martinez are also surprise omissions.
El Clasico stars Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Isco, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Lucas Vazquez, Jordi Alba, Nacho and Dani Carvajal will fly the flag for Barcelona and Real Madrid.
The scorer of the winning goal for Spain in the 2010 World Cup final, Iniesta on Sunday played his last game for Barca after a 16-year spell at the Nou Camp.
Former Chelsea striker Diego Costa, now back at Atletico, has made the cut after plundering seven goals for the capital club following his return to eligibility in January.
Head coach Lopetegui said in quotes carried by the Spanish national team’s official Twitter account: “We have decided that this is the squad that will serve us best. It’s been difficult, because beyond this list of names are the dreams of a nation.
“We are taking the squad which we consider to be the best one. Whatever we’re going to achieve at the World Cup, we’ll do it with this group.”
Spain will tackle Portugal, Iran and Morocco in Group B, with their first match against Cristiano Ronaldo and company taking place on June 15 in Sochi.
Spain’s 23-man World Cup squad: Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Marco Asensio (Real Madrid), Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Dani Carvalhal (Real Madrid), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), David de Gea (Manchester United), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Isco (Real Madrid), Kepa (Athletic Bilbao), Koke (Atletico Madrid), Nacho Monreal (Arsenal), Nacho (Real Madrid), Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid), Alvaro Odriozola (Real Sociedad), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Jose Reina (Napoli), Rodrigo (Valencia), David Silva (Manchester City), Thiago (Bayern Munich), Lucas Vazquez (Real Madrid).
The Premier League pair were not in the 23-man group announced by coach Didier Deschamps on Thursday night.
Instead they were included on an 11-strong standby list for the tournament in Russia.
Les Bleus have a wealth of attacking options, with the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele and Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud named in the squad.
Marseille’s former West Ham midfielder Dimitri Payet was another big name to miss out.
He went off injured in Marseille’s Europa League final defeat to Atletico Madrid on Wednesday night.
His team-mate Florian Thauvin, who has excelled in the south of France after an unhappy spell at Newcastle, is in the squad.
Giroud’s Chelsea team-mate N’Golo Kante has also been included, while Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, Manchester City left-back Benjamin Mendy, who has spent the majority of the season out injured with a cruciate ligament rupture, and United midfielder Paul Pogba are the other England-based players in the party.
Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman had to be content with a place on the standby list, alongside the likes of Tottenham’s Moussa Sissoko, Crystal Palace’s Mamadou Sakho and Kurt Zouma, on loan at Stoke from Chelsea.
France have three warm-up games ahead of the World Cup – against the Republic of Ireland on May 28, Italy four days later and the United States on June 9.
They start their World Cup campaign against Australia on June 16, with Peru and Denmark the other teams in their group.
France squad for World Cup:
Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), Steve Mandanda (Marseille), Alphonse Areola (Paris St Germain); Djibril Sidibe (Monaco), Benjamin Pavard (Stuttgart), Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona), Raphael Varane (Real Madrid), Presnel Kimpembe (Paris St Germain), Adil Rami (Marseille), Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City), Lucas Hernandez (Atletico Madrid); Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich), Blaise Matuidi (Juventus), N’Golo Kante (Chelsea), Steven Nzonzi (Sevilla); Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Olivier Giroud (Chelsea), Kylian Mbappe (Paris St Germain), Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona), Florian Thauvin (Marseille), Nabil Fekir (Lyon), Thomas Lemar (Monaco).
Wissam Ben Yedder (Sevilla), Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich), Benoit Costil (Bordeaux), Mathieu Debuchy (St Etienne), Lucas Digne (Barcelona), Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal), Anthony Martial (Manchester United), Adrien Rabiot (Paris St Germain), Mamadou Sakho (Crystal Palace), Moussa Sissoko (Tottenham), Kurt Zouma (Stoke).