Heat turning up on La Roja

Heat turning up on La Roja by Graham Hunter

(Getty)

(Getty)

Make no mistake about it, Spain’s six-year status as the uncontested world No. 1 international side is about to be attacked with all weapons and — hopefully for the contenders — battered into submission over the next 15 months, starting this week.
I say six years because although their first title was raised at Euro 2008, Luis Aragones’ side brought to that tournament an unbeaten run stretching back to November 2006 — the beginning of a dynamic momentum that has suffered barely a blip from then until now.

But the next year and a half shapes up like an inferno.

Right now, it’s the devilishly tricky prospect of World Cup qualification at hand. The home draw with Didier Deschamps’ France (and the degree to which Les Bleus played more organised and more convincing football) in Madrid last October means that the bare minimum to take from ties with Finland (Friday night in Gijon) and France (in Paris on Tuesday night) is four points. Six would be needed to guarantee putting the world champions back in the driver’s seat.

This summer (Confederations Cup) it’s in Brazil — the fifth time in six years that the majority of this squad won’t have had a proper physical and mental break during the offseason. Testing in the extreme.

The very fact that it’s in Brazil will also be a major examination. While recent performances don’t mark the current Brazil XI as utterly outstanding, they do have a crop of significantly interesting players and it’s not for nothing that this nation is the dominant one across the history of international football.

The last time this version of Spain competed in a tournament in which the home nation’s fans were not only fanatical but the home team also had a serious chance of winning was in Germany. Exit at the quarterfinal stage to France was deeply painful, but also the cause of much soul-searching and, nearly, the end of the Aragones’ reign before it hit a seam of gold.

Strengths

This squad has so much surplus talent, by which I mean actual technique, skill and football ability that while you may favour Andres Iniesta over Juan Mata, or David Silva over Jesus Navas, the fact remains that Mata and Navas (just to choose two examples) are exceptional footballers.

…Prior to the 1-1 draw with France, Spain had produced 24 straight qualification victories — literally jaw-dropping stuff. That late Olivier Giroud goal, partially because of a naive Juanfran error, partially because Del Bosque abandoned his double pivot midfield and Spain surrendered control of the midfield, really stung La Roja’s players badly, and they’ll be hunting down redemption.

Moreover, just look at how the vast majority of them are performing domestically.

Harmony? Some of the old tensions rose to the surface again during the two recent Clasicos, and I’d wager you already know that, away from La Roja, Xavi and Busquets probably won’t call Alonso or Arbeloa for a couple of drinks and a night at the cinema next time they are in Madrid. But you don’t need a training ground to be all Woodstock and flower power; you need basic common goals and mutual respect. These, helped by wise old Del Bosque, still reign sufficiently.

Weakness

Much as I admire Valdes, he’d be the first to admit that there is a reason, far above loyalty, which has made Casillas the No. 1 for so many years. Not only have Spain lost an utterly exceptional leader and goalkeeper they have gone out of a “comfort zone” that has existed for over a decade. It’s extremely rare La Roja have had to play a vital competitive match without San Iker (Saint Iker), and as good as Valdes is, the pressure will be huge.

Opportunities

Depending on how events unfold, this could be a week with sizable repercussions for players such as Mata, Cazorla, Navas, Fabregas and, most intriguingly, Isco.

No Fernando Llorente, no Fernando Torres, no Roberto Soldado — and at a time when goals, at home against a tight-pressing and defensive Finland side and then in the lion’s den against France, are at a premium.

Fabregas, not quite in his best touch right now, is someone whose goals and assists were crucial in winning the past three tournaments. A touchstone player for Del Bosque, but it’s a test for the Catalan given that the goals have dried up for him at club level recently. David Villa will be the reference striker, and to say this is a big opportunity for the national team’s all-time leading scorer would be to misuse the phrase.

…As for Isco, he made his debut in the friendly against Uruguay and he’s had every last drop of energy and vitality squeezed out of him by his club side this season as Malaga fight to turn their horrible financial and administrative situation into a sporting triumph.

But this boy has real, outstanding talent.

Threats

But Deschamps has taken the healing process which Laurent Blanc started and added a sprinkling of the old French arrogance and a degree of extra attacking muscle; what’s more, he has a great man management touch.

He has the great benefit that a decent number of his key players are fit and on form. He is also in the process of transplanting the unity of spirit and confidence that the best teams he played on — Marseille, Juventus, France — always displayed. His tactical nous was on display at the Calderon in the autumn; the fact that his players perform for him is, I think, a detectable threat throughout his coaching career, and he has made it abundantly clear that national team coaching has made him infinitely happier, sharper and more fulfilled than his latter days with Olympique Marseille.

 

Advertisements

Tags: , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: