World Cup Warm-Up: Farewell tour could end in glory for Spain
Jack Lang turns his attentions to La Furia Roja's old guard as he continues his series on the strongest teams and market favourites at Russia 2018...
"Lopetegui could probably walk down a busy street in his hometown without being accosted, but his record since taking charge is impressive: 13 wins and no defeats in 18 games"
You know who really got a kick out of Brazil's 2014 World Cup semi-final nightmare? Well Germany, of course, but they weren't the only ones. That night in Belo Horizonte was also pretty handy for Spain. Up to that point, they had been destined for the unwanted title of tournament flops.
Demolished by the Netherlands in their Group B opener, the reigning champions failed to make it out of their group - a startling failure, given the quality at Vicente Del Bosque's disposal. Yet while the inquest began in Spain itself, the glare of the wider world alighted upon the hosts, whose shudder-inducing implosion at the Mineirão will forever be the image of that tournament. Thanks Brazil. Really: gracias.
Four years on, and with an underwhelming campaign at Euro 2016 also on the balance sheet, La Furia Roja travel to Russia as [7.4] third-favourites. So will Spain reign again or will they experience more pain? (Sorry.)
Final rodeo for the old guard
Julen Lopetegui's squad will have a familiar look to anyone who has had even a passing interest in the international game over the last decade. Six of the players who beat Nigel De Jong's Dutch MMA experts in South Africa are still knocking around this year, giving the core of the side a pleasingly wizened aspect. Think of them as football's Rolling Stones; they're not getting any younger, but they know their way around a summer festival.
It does mean that Spain's campaign will feel inevitably feel valedictory: Sergio Busquets (29) may yet squeeze in another World Cup, but this is a definitely a last tango for Andrés Iniesta and Pepe Reina, and probably for David Silva, Sergio Ramos (a man who could teach Keith Richards a thing or two about bad behaviour) and Gerard Piqué, too. With all but Reina expected to start, much will turn on the old guard's determination to bow out on a high.
Age before beauty
It is an odd quirk of the Spanish set-up that even the players you would regard as fresh faces are not actually that young. Lucas Vázquez and Rodrigo Moreno are relative novices at this level, but can hardly be regarded as kids at 26 and 27 respectively. Throw in 30-year-old Iago Aspas, the other main attacking wildcard, and Nacho Monreal (32), and Lopetegui starts to look like the patron saint of late-developers.
But it's also notable how many fine players enter this tournament at what should be the peak of their powers, at least in World Cup terms. David De Gea, César Azpilicueta, Nacho, Jordi Alba, Dani Carvajal, Koke, Busquets, Thiago, Isco and Diego Costa are all in that 26-30 sweet spot - experienced but with the desire to replicate the achievements of the class of 2010. De Gea and Isco especially look vital to Spain's hopes.
There are only four players under that bracket, and two of them - goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and right-back Álvaro Odriozola - are destined for a watching brief. The youth vote, then, will be provided by Saúl Ñíguez and Marco Asensio, both playing their first major tournament at senior level. If they can produce anything like the form they showed at the European Under-21 Championship last summer, they will have a big impact.
Omens look good for Lopetegui
Lopetegui could probably walk down a busy street in his hometown without being accosted and remains inexperienced at this level; it is tempting to wonder whether he would have the authority to whip the big personalities in his changing room into shape in case if things started to go awry. But the federation clearly have faith in him - they recently extended his contract - and his record since taking charge is impressive: 13 wins and no defeats in 18 games.
The last of those successes looks particularly pertinent. Spain took a sledgehammer to Argentina in March, winning 6-1 and generally looking like they had access to about three more gears than their opponents. It was a performance to strike fear into the hearts of their Group B rivals, and while the 2010 campaign famously started slowly before building to a climax, this year's vintage - populated by players who have been in excellent form at club level - look primed to fly out of the traps.
Back Spain to reach the semi-finals at [2.28]