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Spain: Ready to right the wrongs of Brazil 2014

Having dominated the footballing world between 2008 and 2012 - picking up two European Championship crowns and the 2010 World Cup title - Spain are due a big performance in a tournament.

A woeful showing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil saw Vicente del Bosque’s side dumped out in the group stages having been hammered 5-1 by the Netherlands in their tournament opener. Spain were then beaten by Italy in the first knockout round in Euro 2016.

Rightly among the tournament favourites this time around, Spain are back performing at their optimum level - just ask Argentina, who were thrashed 6-1 in a recent friendly. Spain may have lost many of their golden generation that spearheaded their trophy-laden spell ten years ago, but the latest incumbent isn't to be sniffed it.

Spain’s World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: Kepa, De Gea, Reina

Defenders: Alba, Azpilicueta, Carvajal, Nacho, Monreal, Odriozola, Pique, Ramos

Midfielders: Isco, Thiago Alcantara, Busquets, D Silva, Iniesta, Saul Niguez, Koke

Forwards: Asensio, Aspas, D Costa, Rodrigo, Lucas Vazquez

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How did they qualify?

The 2010 world champions have gone 18 games unbeaten under Julen Lopetegui since their Euro 2016 exit to Italy. Qualification came at a canter. It could not have got off to an easier start than with a home clash with Liechtenstein - which La Roja duly won 8-0.

Then came a performance in Italy when Spain looked anything but potential world champions. Daniele De Rossi’s late penalty denied Spain victory, but they struggled to find any fluidity.

The highpoint of the campaign, though, came in the 3-0 victory in the reverse fixture in the Bernabeu in September. The scoreline flattered Italy, as Spain produced some of their best free-flowing football in some time.

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Lopetegui, struggling to settle on a central striker, went with the ‘false 9’ system that Spain made famous in their title successes under Del Bosque, and the result was devastating, Lopetegui extracting as much as possible out of the array of midfield attacking talent at his disposal.

Since, Lopetegui has experimented with different strikers - Alvaro Morata, Iago Aspas and Rodrigo Moreno - who have all got on the scoresheet.

Nine wins out of ten, 36 goals scored - bettered only by two teams - and a joint best defensive record of just three goals conceded is as good as any Spain follower could have hoped for.

Key men

The back six has become as key as any for Spain in recent years. Renowned as the forefathers of tiki-taka, Spain are now all about a solid foundation.

David de Gea is regarded by many as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and plays a role similar to that required by Manchester United. With such a strong defence ahead of him for both club and country, De Gea is often only called upon sporadically, but his concentration remains on point. Even if he is idle for 89 minutes, he is more than capable of pulling off that victory-preserving save.

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Ahead of him, club enemies Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique - who has had plenty of problems with his own fans over his allegiance to the Catalan independence movement - are the go-to centre-back pairing, while Jordi Alba and Dani Carvajal have made the full-back positions their own. Sergio Busquets then offers the ultimate protection in the midfield anchor role.

That solidity frees up their creative players further forward - where Isco has become their leading light. He might not be able to hold down a regular first-team spot at Real Madrid, but Isco is on fire for his country.

The 25-year-old admitted that he “felt alive” after his hat-trick in the 6-1 victory over Argentina, taking a swipe at club manager Zinedine Zidane in the process. Alongside a rejuvenated David Silva, Thiago Alcantara and Andres Iniesta, Spain's midfield combines to devastating effect, all with a finesse that makes it a joy to watch.

While there isn’t the abundance of strike ability there once was, the fact Diego Costa is back playing regularly and showing glimpses of his best football is a bonus.

One to watch - Marco Asensio

Every team needs a plan B, even one with the myriad of attacking talent that Spain have at their disposal, and in Marco Asensio, Lopetegui possesses a livewire who offers something nobody else within the Spain ranks can provide.

The dynamic forward is most comfortable on the wing or as a runner in a front two, and has displayed a directness rarely seen in Spain since coming through the ranks at Real Madrid.
While ball-playing Spanish midfielders are plentiful, Asensio is the only one who shows real willing to run at defenders, and he possesses a wicked cross that can unlock many a backline.
With so many experienced stars ahead of him in the pecking order, Asensio is unlikely to be a starter, but should things not go to plan, he will likely be the first port of call, and is not one to shirk the big occasion, either.

When called upon from the bench, Asensio’s last three Champions League goals have been as a substitute, with all of them coming in knockout matches – two against Bayern Munich (last season’s quarter-final and this season’s semi-final first-leg) and one against Juventus in last season’s final.

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The manager

Talk about drama. Just one day before the opening game of the World Cup, Spain sacked the manager that seamlessly guided them through qualification.

Julen Lopetegui's decision to take the vacant Real Madrid job led to his immediate removal by the Spanish FA, because in their view the negotiation occurred "without any information to the RFEF".

Lopetegui had originally agreed to join Real after the World Cup but RFEF president Luis Rubiales felt "compelled" to act after being left in a "very difficult situation".

Into the breach steps former Real Madrid defender Fernando Hierro, who was previously serving as Spain's sporting director. 

It's a nightmare scenario for a Spanish squad that was fancied as one of the main threats to Brazil and Germany in Russia.

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Potential route to the final

European champions Portugal represent a very difficult tournament opener, but win that, then comes the more easily navigable matches against Morocco and Iran in Group B.

Then, in the round of 16, Spain have again got lucky, with Uruguay, Russia, Saudi Arabia or Egypt the potential opponents. The latter three being the most likely, with Uruguay favourites to win their group.

Their luck runs out after that, as Argentina are likely last-eight opponents, before a potential semi-final with Brazil or Germany.

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Expert opinion

Jordi Quixano - reporter for El Pais.

"It could not have gone much better in qualification. After our last trophy win, there was a lot of work to do to improve the team, and the coach has to take credit for turning around the Spanish team.

"He has kept the essence of Spain’s style of play that has been successful, while making them very solid. He has his backbone of the key players, with De Gea, Ramos, Pique and Busquets starting every game they possibly can. They are his lieutenants on the pitch. Three goals conceded in qualification is a sign of just how difficult Spain will be to beat in Russia.

"There is a lack of striker options, but having Diego Costa is a huge boost. Lucas Vazquez also gives Spain that additional option late in the game.

"The group has been very kind to Spain. Portugal are in there, but they are not on Spain’s level. Brazil, Argentina and Germany are obviously also favourites, but Spain really can go all the way. They are good enough and the coach is full of surprises."

Odds

William Hill have the Spaniards as the fourth favourites (6/1) behind Brazil, France and defending champions Germany.*

That seems decent value as, having disappointed at World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016, they look well poised this year with a solid foundation marshalled by a world-class goalkeeper.

The only issue could be their front line, with Diego Costa their one true out-and-out forward. He’s their best bet to finish as top goalscorer (18/1)*, with Isco (50/1)* and Asensio (80/1)* at much longer odds.

*Please note these odds are correct at time of publishing and could be subject to change.

**GiveMeSport brings you this article in collaboration with William Hill

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