Central striker dilemma and other talking points as Spain face Switzerland in World Cup warm-up

Andy West 2/06/2018
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Spain resume their World Cup preparations with a friendly against Switzerland in Villarreal on Sunday night, hoping to maintain their feelgood factor after gaining a thumping 6-1 victory over Argentina in their last international outing in March.

La Roja are among the tournament favourites after mounting an extremely impressive qualification campaign, and this penultimate warm-up fixture – preceding next weekend’s meeting with Tunisia – is another chance to establish their credentials.

Here are three of the big talking points ahead of Sunday evening’s contest.

One up top?

The main selection decision facing boss Julen Lopetegui is in attack, where Iago Aspas, Diego Costa and Rodrigo Moreno are competing for the one central striker berth in manager Julen Lopetegui’s 4-3-3 set-up.

Those three forwards held off Euro 2016 starter Alvaro Morata to earn a place in the squad, but Lopetegui has admitted he still does not know which of the trio will be named in the starting eleven for the World Cup opener against Portugal in less than a fortnight.

Atletico Madrid target man Costa has the biggest reputation of the three but Celta Vigo star Aspas has been the most impressive recently, registering one goal and two assists in the victory over Argentina and finishing the league season with an impressive haul of 22 goals – six more than any other Spanish player.

Valencia striker Rodrigo is probably third in the pecking order having played his way into the squad with a 16-goal league campaign, and Lopetegui is more likely to be making a straight choice between the power of Costa or the more graceful skills of Aspas. This weekend’s game could give both a chance to shine.

ESP-TRAINING

Odriozola’s opportunity?

The least known name in Spain’s World Cup squad is 22 year-old Real Sociedad right back Alvaro Odriozola, who has won just two caps and played only 47 league games.

But with Real Madrid star Dani Carvajal recovering from a hamstring injury suffered during last weekend’s Champions League Final, a vacancy has opened up on the right of Lopetegui’s defence and Odriozola is vying with Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta to fill it.

And they might not only be understudies: it’s uncertain whether Carvajal will be fit in time for the start of the World Cup, so whoever wins the battle between the back-ups could gain a starting berth for that crunch opener against Portugal – which would mean a close encounter with none other than Cristiano Ronaldo.

Odriozola is the more attacking option and better on the ball, but Azpilicueta has much more experience at the highest level after appearing in the 2014 World Cup Finals as well as his vast experience with Chelsea. Lopetegui’s preference could be revealed against Switzerland.

Alvaro Odriozola

Swiss defensive precision?

Switzerland are not heading to the east coast of Spain this weekend merely to make up the numbers, with Vladimir Petkovic’s team also in the midst of World Cup preparations as they look ahead to their Group E encounters with Brazil, Serbia and Costa Rica.

The Swiss were excellent during the qualifying campaign, winning nine of their ten games to finish second, level on points with group winners Portugal, and then defeating Northern Ireland 1-0 on aggregate in the playoff round. They also gained clean sheet friendly victories over Panama and Greece in March, and will travel to Russia with high hopes of making it through to the last sixteen at the very least.

Defence is by far the Swiss team’s greatest strength, conceding just four goals in their last 12 games, with Fabien Schar of Deportivo La Coruna flanked by excellent Serie A-based full-backs Stephan Lichtsteiner of Juventus and AC Milan’s Ricardo Rodriguez.

They will aim to make life as difficult as possible for the hosts, and another clean sheet would give further weight to the suggestion that they could be a dark horse in Russia this summer.

Vladimir Petkovic

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Winning the World Cup is the only way Paul Pogba can silence the France boo boys

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Paul Pogba has work to do to silence the France boo boys.

Getting booed off by your own fans is one of the most humiliating experiences for any sportsperson.

Paul Pogba was subjected to the treatment on Friday, getting jeered by France fans after misplacing a pass in in his side’s 3-1 win over Italy in Nice, and then again when he was substituted.

There was little reason for the booing – the Manchester United star was a little off his best, but also sprayed raking passes about with customary aplomb, and drove forward with the ball in trademark fashion. On occasion he would misplace a pass or try something over-ambitious, without it coming off.

In short, it was another typical United-era Pogba display. Fans at Old Trafford, who have seen Pogba’s inconsistency firsthand for two seasons, have yet to give their midfielder such treatment.

Pogba’s outsized personality makes it easy to forget that he’s still 25, at an age where he should be considered a developing talent rather than the finished product. But that talent, and his star power, come with the pressure of expectation.

And with France, that pressure is compounded. The fans know they have an incredible collection of talent – one that, on paper, is among the favourites for the World Cup trophy this summer. It’s an unfair burden, because this side is not as battle-tested as holders Germany and perennial contenders Brazil, or as pedigreed as Spain. Yet the collection of players is so good that losing the final of Euro 2016, at home, was seen as underachievement.

Rightly or wrongly, Pogba is viewed as the leader of this generation. Antoine Griezmann, two years his senior, doesn’t face the same scrutiny, despite being as flashy and as talented. And the rest of France’s young brigade – Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar, Ousmane Dembele, Nabil Fekir – haven’t made as big a name for themselves.

So the burden of winning football’s biggest prize falls on the shoulders of a player whose honour roll consists of winning four Serie A titles as part of a dominant Juventus side, and a handful of cup triumphs in competitions other than Europe’s premier trophy, the Champions League.

And the only way he can silence the boo boys is to come back home from Russia this summer with the Jules Rimet Trophy in hand.

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World Cup 2018: When it kicks off, who will win and other key questions

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The 2018 World Cup is nearing.

Here are the key questions about the tournament.

Q: Where and when is it?

A: After all the controversy of the 2018/2022 joint bidding process which saw Russia and Qatar awarded the tournaments, the first of those is upon us. The 2018 World Cup takes place from June 14 to July 15 in Russia.

Matches take place in 11 cities in the world’s largest country (by geographical area), from Kalingrad in the west to Ekaterinburg in the east, Sochi in the south, to St Petersburg in the north. Ekaterinburg has a population of 1.4 million and is located on the geographical border of Europe and Asia, at the foot of the Ural Mountains.

wc russia

Q: Who will win?

A: Brazil lead the early betting from Germany, Spain, France and Argentina, closely followed by Belgium in what is an open tournament with no clear favourites.

This could be the last realistic chance for Lionel Messi, 31 on June 24, to lead Argentina to the trophy.

Messi of Argentina

Q: Who won’t win?

A: Italy, champions in 2006, 2010 runners-up Holland and Chile, who won the Copa America in 2015 and 2016, have all failed to qualify. So too have Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, plus the United States.

italy

Q: Are there any days without football?

A: Seven of the 31 days feature no match action: June 29 (the day after the group stage), July 4 and 5 (between the last 16 and quarter-finals), July 8 and 9 (between the quarter-finals and the semi-finals), and, July 12 and 13 (between the semi-finals and the third-placed play-off).

stadium

Q: Will there be any technology used to support officials?

A: Since Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal in England’s 2010 World Cup loss to Germany, FIFA has embraced technology. Goal-line technology was used in 2014 and the 2018 tournament will include Video Assistant Referees.

VARs have not been universally embraced and there have been teething problems, but the system has been passed. Replays of incidents under VAR review will be shown on big screens inside Stadia.

Referee

Q: Is it going to be a good tournament?

A: Almost certainly. For those travelling, there are reasons to be apprehensive, particularly if you are from a minority group, given Russia’s recent history. But the vastness of the country means it is also diverse and there will be plenty to see and experience (hopefully mostly good).

For those watching from the comfort of their own sofa or the pub the tournament will really get going in the knockout stages. And there are individuals and teams who will light up the tournament.

FIFA World Cup trophy

Provided by Press Association Sport

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