Two years ago, Spain were on top of the world. They were a brute force, with the kind of dominance hardly ever witnessed. They were rampant, they were invincible, they were magical. But suddenly, one fine day, they came down crashing like a drunken party goer getting out of a late night taxi.
Spain's unceremonious exit from the 2014 FIFA World Cup shocked the world. This was a team that had won it all: The 2008 Euros, 2010 FIFA World Cup and the 2012 Euros. No team had successfully defended the Euro crown ever before. But their World Cup failure was still talked about more than their successes. Sport can be cruel sometimes, but such were the expectations they had forged in people's minds.
Now, as Spain head into the 2016 Euros as defending champions, football fans are left in a quandary. Over the last eight years, they have gone into every major tournament as favourites, but one blip has changed everyone's perceptions. "People maybe don't know what to expect from Spain (in 2016 Euro) because the last World Cup was a disappointment," Spain midfielder Cesc Fabregas told FFT.
Following the World Cup debacle, manager Vicente del Bosque emphasised the need for "soft transition". It's been two years since the transition started. Veterans Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso — the heart of Spain's midfield — and striker David Villa have retired. A whole new bunch of young talent has emerged and they have started to gel in well.
Spain now have a good mix of youth and experience. Sergio Busquets (84 matches), Sergio Ramos (133) and Andres Iniesta (107) bring in loads of experience and form the core of the team. Busquets has grown into one of the best midfielders in the world and his passing ability along with defensive nous will be crucial for Spain, especially during opposition's counter-attacks. He will take command of central midfield, most probably along with Koke. Cesc Fabregas, who had a horrible season with Chelsea, might take the No 10 role with Iniesta on the left and David Silva on the right further up the midfield.
Two years ago, opposition teams cracked the famous Spanish tiki-taka code with counter-attacking football and it will be interesting to see if del Bosque sticks with his 4-3-3 formation or goes with a 4-2-3-1 for greater stability in the midfield to handle counter-attacks. This time, he will need to have a plan B in case the possession-based tactics fail again. David Silva has been marred with injuries and inconsistent form for Manchester City; he along with Fabregas will need to up the ante.
Over the years, it has been Spain's electric midfield that has mesmerised fans and terrorised defenders, but their success has been built on a sturdy defence. Quite often in praising the midfield the defence is forgotten. In the 2008 Euros, they conceded just three goals, joint-second lowest. In 2010 World Cup, opposition teams netted just twice against them. It was even better in the 2012 Euro, where they had the best defensive record, conceding just one solitary goal.
It all went missing in the 2014 World Cup, however, where they conceded seven goals in three matches, and that proved to be crucial. However, their defence has shaped up well this season, conceding just three goals (joint second-least with England) in the qualifying campaign. The central defensive pair of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique will form the cornerstone of the defence. Having won the Champions League and La Liga titles respectively, they will enter the competitions high on confidence. Ramos provides an additional goal-scoring ability too. Juanfran has developed into a world class full back thanks to his accurate distribution and immense stamina coupled with error-free defending. Jordi Alba forms a combative full-back pairing with Juanfran with his tremendous positional awareness.
However, Del Bosque will have a big selection headache on whether to go with the experience of Iker Casillas or the form of young David De Gea in the goal.
Perhaps the most glaring weakness in Spain's squad is the striker's department. Del Bosque has taken some brave yet baffling selections which saw him leave out high-profile names such as Santi Cazorla, Juan Mata, Diego Costa and Fernando Torres. He even dropped Valencia forward Paco Alcacer who was top scorer in the qualifying campaign.
This leaves him with 35-year-old Athletic Bilbao striker Aritz Aduriz and Juventus' Alvaro Morata. It's difficult that both will start upfront together as Del Bosque will most likely prefer two attacking midfielders. Aduriz has proved that he is getting better with age as he netted 36 goals for Bilbao in all competitions this season but there are high chances that Morata will be preferred ahead of him. Though Morata isn't a prolific scorer, his physical presence, dribbling capabilities and ability to hold the ball will come in handy. More importantly, he has the knack of scoring crucial goals in big matches. However, the lack of international experience up-front might just prove to be decisive for Spain.
Key Player: Iniesta has seen it all and he's done it all. Six years ago, he delivered one of the most important strikes in Spain's history to help them lift their maiden World Cup. Two years later, he sparkled in Spain's 4-0 thrashing of Italy in 2012 Euro Final. He's done it over and over again for Barcelona. He is the first player to achieve the feat of being the Man of the Match in European Championship final, World Cup final and a Champions League final. He is a big-match player and with Xavi and Alonso gone, his role becomes more crucial than ever.
“He’s so good that it is impossible not to play him,” said Iniesta’s former Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola.
“Nobody has a better reading of space and time than him.
“But, above that, he has the ability to unbalance opposition teams. He is the player that always kills you in attacks and he is always there in the biggest games.”
Spain have warmed up for the Euros well with comfortable wins over South Korea (6-1) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (3-1) in friendlies. Though they did slip up with a 1-0 loss against Georgia in their last friendly ahead of the tournament. And apart from the early stutter, where they lost to Slovakia, in just the second game, they have had a smooth sailing in the qualifiers, comfortably topping the group with nine wins and one loss from ten matches. However, they showed just shades of the killer Spain of old.
It's amazing how crucial a role confidence plays in sport. Ahead of the Euros, Fabregas recalled how the 2014 World Cup would have been different.
“In football confidence is so important, and in certain moments things go right or wrong,” the Chelsea man told FFT. “I remember in the Netherlands game, which we lost 5-1, we were winning 1-0 and David Silva was one-on-one with the goalkeeper. If he scored that it would have been 2-0, and no chance for them.
“We’d have probably won and the confidence would have been very different. Instead, straight after that chance they scored, and from then in the second half they were much better than us. So football is about moments (like that)," the Spaniard added.
“All of the players were well below their normal level – all of them, from the first player to the last. We were almost trying to get rid of the ball. There was nervousness, timidity. We were not ourselves,” Del Bosque remarked after the World Cup elimination.
They qualifying campaign was an easy sail mainly because of the not-so-spectacular teams in the group but Spain have been drawn in a tricky group with Croatia, Czech Republic and Turkey.
They still have the best talent on display. They still have one of the best teams on paper. They possess world class players in the squad. They possess strong bench strength. But what Spain need, to lift the historic treble, is the confidence and hunger to bring back the glory days which will exorcise the demons of that humid evening in Salvador against Netherlands which marked the end of an era at the Maracanã.
Spain 23-man squad for Euro 2016:
Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas, David de Gea and Sergio Rico.
Defenders: Juanfran, Hector Bellerín, Mikel San José, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Marc Bartra, Cesar Azpilicueta and Jordi Alba.
Midfielders: Lucas Vázquez, Bruno Soriano, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Koke, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Pedro and Thiago Alcantara.
Strikers: Alvaro Morata, Aritz Aduriz and Nolito.