Spain World Cup 2018 squad and team guide as Real Madrid star Isco is key man

Alex Rea 6/06/2018
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There have been varying shades of red emblematic of Spain in recent years.

Drained from triple triumphs in 2008, 2010 and 2012, Brazil brought out a pale portrayal with the sombre tone one of an era ending.

A crimson rage inevitably followed but boss Vicente Del Bosque persevered until their Euro 2016 last-16 exit to Italy.

Julen Lopetegui was headed for Wolves until his country called and his succession was met with a lukewarm reception.

But the former Porto boss has revamped Spain, splashing his side with youthful exuberance through the likes of Isco, Marco Asensio and Saul Niguez while maintaining an experienced core with Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets.

They were expected to struggle in qualifying but breezed through to top a group containing Italy with nine wins and one draw.

A marriage of intense pressing and clinical finishing has already resulted in full-throttle performances to rip apart Argentina 6-1 and they are in ominous form heading to Russia.

Largely bolted to a 4-3-3, David De Gea arrives as arguably the world’s best goalkeeper while in front of him the formidable but contrasting pairing of Gerard Pique and Ramos remains tighter than ever.

In Jordi Alba and Dani Carvajal, Lopetegui possesses flying full-backs while the midfield is quintessentially La Furia Roja.

Iniesta is likely embarking on his final tournament in a Spain shirt but is still so sharp.

His former Barcelona teammate Busquets, as ever, has been a master of tempo this season while Isco has been mystifying for Real Madrid but mesmeric for Spain.

The only real question mark is who operates at No9 with Alvaro Morata’s indifferent form for Chelsea seeing him miss the plane.

Diego Costa has been in fine form for Atletico Madrid this season but he doesn’t link up well enough for the fluidity of Spain’s attack.

Don’t be surprised if Iago Aspas and Rodrigo are afforded chances.

Still, Lopetegui has talent and ability from 1-23 and there is genuine optimism in Spain for a red rising, one which will banish the memories of four years ago and draw upon the success of South Africa in 2010.

KEY PLAYER

Isco

FBL-FRIENDLY-ESP-ARG

Andres Iniesta is arguable the greatest midfielder Spain have ever produced and while the 33-year-old will still be integral, it is Isco’s dancing feet which will make this side beat. Indifferent with Real Madrid, the playmaker comes to life with Spain, displaying immaculate form.

COACH

Julen Lopetegui

Spain v Switzerland - International Friendly

The former Porto boss has injected renewed vigour in the aftermath of Vicente Del Bosque’s demise two years ago. Received a tepid reception when appointed but his soothing presence inspired an 18-game unbeaten run.

CAPTAIN

Sergio Ramos

Germany v Spain - International Friendly

A formidable competitor and an inspirational leader, Ramos has over 150 caps for his country and remains Lopetegui’s most trusted on-pitch commander despite the Real Madrid man turning 32 this year.

YOUNG STAR

Marco Asensio

Germany v Spain - International Friendly

A seductive package of dizzying footwork and a mallet of a left-foot, the 22-year-old is the present and future of Spanish football. Has yet to truly carve out a role with La Roja but he can be a game-changer.

KEY FACTS AND STATS

– Isco has scored 10 goals for Spain with eight of those coming under the stewardship of Lopetegui

– Julen Lopetegui enjoyed an unbeaten start to his term as Spain boss with La Roja not tasting defeat in 18 games

– Spain were the fifth reigning champions to exit the following World Cup in the group stages in 2014

FIFA Rating

85 DEF 86 MID 84 ATT

World Cups competed at

15 (First in 1934)

World Cup record

P59, W29, D12, L18

Best finish

Champions (2010)

Qualification record

P10, W9, D1

World ranking

8

SQUAD

Spain v Argentina - International Friendly

Goalkeepers: Pepe Reina (Napoli), David de Gea (Manchester United), Kepa Arrizabalaga (Athletic Bilbao).

Defenders: Nacho Fernandez, Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal (all Real Madrid), Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba (both Barcelona), Alvaro Odriozola (Real Sociedad), Nacho Monreal (Arsenal), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea).

Midfielders: Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets (both Barcelona), Saul Niguez, Koke (both Atletico Madrid), Isco, Marco Asensio (both Real Madrid), Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich), David Silva (Manchester City).

Forwards: Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo), Rodrigo (Valencia), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), Lucas Vazquez (Real Madrid).

VERDICT

There are five favourites to win and Spain are chief among them. They have X-Factor, a biting blend of experience and youth but no clear spearhead could be their downfall.

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Germany losing form at worst possible time as World Cup defence looks in peril

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Even the welcome return of Manuel Neuer couldn't prevent defeat for Germany.

As preparations for a defence of football’s biggest prize go, a five-match winless run is far from ideal. Yet that’s the form Germany are in heading after Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Austria.

Since beating Azerbaijan in their final qualifier for this summer’s World Cup in Russia, Germany have drawn with France, England, and Spain, and lost to Brazil and now Austria. It’s Die Mannschaft’s worst run since 1931, when they went six games without a win.

Manager Joachim Low was understandably upset, saying the world champions failed to execute their plans and had a lot to work on, with one warm-up match against Saudi Arabia left before they kick off their World Cup campaign against Mexico on June 17.

“This defeat annoys me. We didn’t execute many things we had planned,” the 58-year-old said.

“We lost the ball too many times where we could have created a scoring opportunity. Today many things were bad. We won’t fool ourselves. We have a lot to work on over the next two weeks.”

Chief among the concerns is the sudden lack of goals. Germany have gone from scoring 43 in 10 qualifiers to just four in this five-match run. Even accounting for the presence of Azerbaijan and San Marino in their qualifying group, there’s no doubting that the goals have dried up for a team that was scoring for fun.

It’s an alarming dip given that several of Germany’s A-listers have been playing in these fixtures. Forward Nils Petersen was given his debut against Austria, but he had Leroy Sane, Mesut Ozil, Ilkay Gundogan, and Sami Khedira among the players behind him. Thomas Muller, Timo Werner, and Toni Kroos have played in four of these friendlies. This is not a run that can be blamed on squad rotation.

If the issue is players not implementing plans, there is no excuse for that to be the case. Apart from the 0-0 draw against England where the manager experimented with a 3-4-2-1 formation, the players are playing to the same plan they’ve been following for the last four years.

Yet those same players with the same instructions are suddenly looking less sure of themselves. Possession is being squandered far too easily, with the trademark passing game being pockmarked by careless giveaways.

“We lost the ball unbelievably often, there were so many turnovers,” Low lamented on Saturday.

“We are not used to that from our team. We let the Austrians get back in the game.”

There’s a marked lack of efficiency – Germany had seven shots on target and scored only once despite having 65% possession against Austria, who scored twice from four shots on target.

It was a similar story against England, and the 1-0 loss to Brazil in March was even more worrying: 58% possession, 13 shots, only one on target.

On the surface, it’s hard to see what Low could change. He has a wealth of attacking players at his disposal, with Ozil, Sane, Muller, Werner, Julian Draxler, Leon Goretzka, and the recovering Marco Reus among them, with the latter two likely to be backups to the others. In Kroos, Gundogan, and Khedira, he has midfielders perfectly suited to the incisive, possession-based game he prefers.

But suddenly, it’s not working. And if Low can’t pinpoint the issues and fix them, this summer’s tournament will be a struggle.

Germany still retain their status as one of the favourites for the World Cup, in no small part due to the fact that they’re the holders. On current form, however, if they face Spain, Brazil, or France in the tournament, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they lost.

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England's Jordan Henderson ready to put Champions League heartache behind him

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Jordan Henderson is ready to put Champions League heartache behind him and get “straight back to business” at the World Cup.

Henderson captained Liverpool in their dramatic 3-1 defeat by Real Madrid – a game that saw two major goalkeeping gaffes from Loris Karius and a first-half injury to star man Mohamed Salah.

Henderson and team-mate Trent Alexander-Arnold were granted extra time off before linking up with England as a result of their involvement and, while the memories of his night in Kiev are still raw, the midfielder is focused on the task at hand.

Having sat out Saturday’s 2-1 Wembley win over Nigeria, Henderson will return to the Three Lions midfield when Costa Rica visit Elland Road for a farewell friendly on Thursday.

“It’s been difficult over the last 10 days. It was hard to take,” he said.

“I’ve had a little bit of time off and time with the family, which was important. It was good to get my head around it and have some down-time to refocus on what is important and that is the World Cup now.

“That is where the focus has got to be. I think it is a good thing, I get straight back to business.

“What’s important is doing the best I can for the national team.”

Jordan Pickford is another England player preparing for a big summer after winning the battle for the number one shirt.

The 24-year-old was born just a few miles away from Henderson and the pair both made their names at Sunderland before moving to Merseyside.

But while the older man is part of the furniture at Anfield, Pickford has endured a turbulent first season across Stanley Park with Everton.

Since signing for the Toffees a year ago, he is already on a fourth manager – Ronald Koeman, caretaker David Unsworth, Sam Allardyce and the newly appointed Marco Silva.

That has not stopped him winning Gareth Southgate’s confidence, but Pickford is taking nothing for granted with Jack Butland and Nick Pope snapping at his heels.

“Obviously going to my first World Cup and getting the number one jersey as a goalkeeper means a massive amount, but it’s a number – it’s not the main the thing,” he told Press Association Sport.

“I’ve got to keep working hard every day to keep the shirt. I’ve only played three games but I’ve never been fazed by any of the games.

“Playing for England means the world to us but I don’t put pressure on myself.”

Pickford is also banking on Butland and Pope to provide support as well as competition.

“We’re pushing each other every day, training really hard off and on the field and in the gym,” he said.

“We’re working together, as the cliche goes – it’s the union.”

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