You might expect the reigning European champions, who came first in their qualifying group by winning eight consecutive games, to be heading into the tournament with confidence sky-high. That is certainly not the case, however, with Spain.
Vicente Del Bosque’s team are still haunted by the embarrassing capitulation of their world title in Brazil two summers ago, when they crashed out in the group stages after suffering a humiliating 5-1 defeat against the Netherlands.
Del Bosque was accused of complacency, excessive loyalty to fading stars, a lack of tactical flexibility and an overly conservative approach. The scars from that torrid experience have not yet healed, and Spain are still slowly finding their way back to their best.
The process is not helped by the fact that several players from their back-to-back-to-back triumphs between 2008 and 2012 have retired from international football, including key midfielders Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez. Although there are plenty of highly talented candidates to replace those outgoing stars, nobody has really done so with any authority and there is a strong sense that Spain are still rebuilding and finding their way.
The style of play will remain the same, with the emphasis on ball retention and patient build-up play, with chances being carefully created rather than bludgeoned through brute force. But without Xavi’s brilliant passing and in the absence of a world-class striker, Spain have looked decidedly toothless of late and will rely heavily on a solid back four based upon the odd pairing of club-level enemies Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique. Of course, there is talent in great abundance, but whether it will gel together to mount a serious challenge this summer remains to be seen.
No team can match the reserves of talent enjoyed by Spain in midfield. Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas are all world-class and boast the experience of winning major trophies, while Koke and Thiago lifted the European Under-21 title in 2013. Spain also have an outstanding back four, with the central solidity of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique.
Goalscoring will be a major problem as Spain have lacked a world-class striker ever since David Villa and Fernando Torres dipped below their peaks. Veteran Aritz Aduriz and Alvaro Morata, are both unproven at international level. While if Iker Casillas starts in goal, an entire nation will be crossing its fingers the veteran improves on his dreadful World Cup performances.
STAR MAN – GERARD PIQUE
After a strange couple of years where he seemed to lose focus on his game, the Barcelona centre back has this season firmly re-established himself as one of the game’s premier defenders. Great in the air, quick and obviously comfortable with the ball at his feet, if he and Ramos remain solid in defence Spain have every chance of achieving something special. Has also now matured into a senior pro after years marked as the squad’s ‘joker’.
Group E is getting all the attention, but Spain’s passage to the knockouts is far from assured. However, anything less than last four will be an underachievement but a lack of goals will probably hold them back.