Spain enter this tournament as both World Cup holders and European Championship holders, and with Spanish club teams having just won the Champions League and Europa League. Cleans sweep. But, because the core of this already legendary team—seriously, if you paid attention over the last six years then you’ll be telling your grandchildren stories about what this national team achieved, and they probably won’t believe you—is widely agree do to have already peaked, they are no longer seen as the same immovable object. Here are 10 things you need to know about Spain:
Coach Vicente del Bosque is the most decorated coach in Spanish history and will certainly go down as one of the greatest national team managers of all time regardless of whether he can lead Spain to an unprecedented fourth consecutive continental championship in Brazil.
But del Bosque raised a few eyebrows when he named his 23-man squad, gambling on Diego Costa despite is injuries and Brazilian-ness and Fernando Torres despite his well-documented struggles at Chelsea, while excluding Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo, who both just won league titles in Italy and England respectively.
Spain plays a tiki-taka style possession-oriented style that has, for better or worse, defined this generation of Spanish football. It operates out of the midfield, which is arguably the strongest in the world, with a Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta trident at the heart of it all. The big question is whether Spain will once again commit to all out tiki-take and 150 percent ball possession, or will del Bosque tweak it to be something less predictable?
Though not a regular starter at Real Madrid over the past two seasons, Iker Casillas is still Spain’s number one and team captain. He’ll be expected to organize a back line that lacks major depth. We’ll see if San Iker still has the goods in Spain’s opening match against the Netherlands on June 13.
Sergio Ramos at center back is the team’s defensive stalwart. He’ll provide strong cover to fellow center back, Gerard Pique, who has only recently returned from a prolonged injury period. Ramos is fast, can get up the flanks to provide the team yet another attacking option and recovers well on lost balls. His greatest strength is his aerial ability, making him dangerous on set pieces to any opposing team.
Andrés Iniesta is Spain’s best player. A crafty playmaker of game-changing abilities, his partnership with Barcelona teammate and fellow maestro, Xavi, is crucial to the team’s success. At the age of 34, Xavi has noticeably slowed in the past year and so Iniesta will need to again come up huge in big moments, especially against quicker, more athletic opponents.
Del Bosque doesn’t deploy a traditional number 9 in his 4-3-2-1 formation but Diego Costa’s inclusion into the squad gives the squad what they don’t have: a world-class striker. Although Costa’s health is still questionable, he’s surely fit enough that del Bosque would take such a massive gamble on the Brazilian born, naturalized Spaniard. His 36 goals in all competitions this year for Atletico Madrid were decisive to their title campaign and first UEFA Champions League final appearance in 40 years.
It used to be tough to pick a weak spot in a Spanish national team, but if Costa is not fit, then the forward position becomes a glaring problem. Fernando Torres’ struggles are real and the Chelsea striker has shown over and over again that he’s not dependable to alone lead the forward line. Pedro is an attacking force, but not a natural striker capable of creating chances by himself in the box. David Villa can supply a good 25-30 minutes off the bench but not a solid option for a full 90 minutes. If the defense remains a question mark after the departure of Puyol, the strikers remain an even bigger doubt if Costa is not healthy.
Midfielder Jesus Navas’ omission from the team was a shock to outside observers, even though he only played sparingly in recent months for Manchester City. But few expected the former Sevilla winger to not be selected; however, given his past stellar performances for La Roja and his playmaking abilities and speed on the flanks. His absence may prove decisive against teams who choose to go ultra-compact defensively.
After decades of underperforming, this Spain squad has defied all expectations and done nothing but win titles since their historic Euro 2008 triumph. If they can manage to pull out a second consecutive World Cup victory, despite not being the obvious favorites, they will go down as possibly the greatest ever side in the tournament’s illustrious history.
Most pundits expect La Roja to at least make the semifinals but few expect the team to lift the trophy in Rio. But given what this team has accomplished in the last six years, it would be foolhardy to bet against them. They are supremely talented and collectively possess more big-game experience than any other squad in the tournament. That may just be enough for yet another run at glory.