Spain’s slightly concerning 1-1 draw with Switzerland on Sunday night – plenty of possession but little punch – was mitigated by the absence of several important players.
Midfield lynchpin Sergio Busquets will return for the World Cup Finals to add his trademark combination of poise and precision, the centre of the defence will be strengthened by the presence of emblematic skipper Sergio Ramos, and the right-flank raiding of Dani Carvajal will provide a more regular supply of attacking threat from that wing (notwithstanding deputy Alvaro Odriozola’s fine goal).
Perhaps the most important player of all those missing on Sunday, however, was Real Madrid star Isco, who has the chance to play the vital role as the most incisive of all Spain’s gifted midfielders during the upcoming festivities in Russia – and by this weekend’s evidence, that ability will be pivotal to La Roja’s hopes.
The problem for Julen Lopetegui’s men against Switzerland was a simple one: although they produced plenty of silky approach play, too few of their players looked like scoring.
David Silva and Andres Iniesta are both marvellous players, of course, but they are more likely to weave past a couple of defenders on the edge of the box rather than delivering the final killer touch themselves.
Koke is also more effective deeper, creating with the ball and pressing the opposition when it is lost, and Busquets hardly ever contributes in the scoring column.
The frontman position is a real concern, with Diego Costa looking out of shape against Switzerland and Lopetegui appearing to be unconvinced by the other options provided by Rodrigo and Iago Aspas, who are both very inexperienced at international level with a combined total of just 14 caps.
Spain will look good at the World Cup, we know that much. But who will score their goals?
The answer could be Isco, who showed his ability to do just that when he last pulled on the national team jersey, recording a brilliant hat-trick in March’s 6-1 demolition of Argentina to take his overall tally to a respectable 10 goals in 27 international outings.
Isco, of course, is not a striker. He can line up anywhere in midfield, and is likely to occupy one of the wide positions in the front three – probably with Silva on the other side – when the serious action gets underway with a mouth-watering group opener against Portugal a week on Friday.
But he has always been a regular on the scoresheet, going right back to his early days with Malaga when he scored 12 goals from the left wing as the Andalusian team enjoyed an excellent 2012/13 season under Manuel Pellegrini, reaching the Champions League quarter-finals.
The goals have continued to flow freely during his five seasons with Real Madrid, where he has registered a total of 41 in 240 outings – a much better record than it sounds when you consider that around a third of total appearances have been brief incursions from the bench and that he has been subbed out in many other games.
During Spain’s excellent qualifying campaign, Isco’s five goals made him the team’s joint leading scorer – even though he was only on the pitch for a total of 399 minutes, less than four and a half full matches. And when you include his friendly goals against Argentina and England, the Madrid man has notched a total of nine goals in his last 11 outings.
Taken as a per-90 minutes ratio, Isco’s scoring record over the course of his career is not too far from one in every other game, and it is that kind of scoring rate – three or four over the course of a seven-game tournament – which could make all the difference to his team’s success in Russia.
So the numbers make it very clear that Isco’s goalscoring ability will be a major asset this summer, and it is also perhaps the biggest argument for including the powerful if erratic Costa as the starting striker ahead of the more nimble skills of Rodrigo and Aspas.
Costa, even when he is misfiring in front of goal, is such a dominant physical presence that he demands attention from opposing defenders, who know he will simply barge his way through to goal if he is left unhindered.
This, if nothing else, does one crucial thing: it creates space for his teammates. And it is that space which Isco, more than any other player in the Spain squad other than Aspas, can exploit to score.
These demands are somewhat new for Isco. With his club side, goals are a bonus rather than an expected part of his role, with others – notably Cristiano Ronaldo – picking up most of the burden in that department.
On the international scene, though, it’s a different matter and Spain’s relative lack of scoring options give more prominence to that aspect of Isco’s game.
If he can take his scoring boots to Russia, he could play a major role in his country becoming world champions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Paul Pogba was booed by his own supporters as Les Bleus beat Italy, exasperating Corentin Tolisso pic.twitter.com/uMiSZkGUwj— Goal (@goal) June 2, 2018
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.