Unfancied Spain Far From Finished...

Amid all the fuss about Brazil and Argentina, many seem to have forgotten about the best team in the world for the last six years. Ian Watson can't fathom why Spain are so unfancied...

Last Updated: 13/06/14 at 10:11 Post Comment

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Spain get their defence of the World Cup underway against Netherlands on Friday night, having flown in to Brazil curiously under the radar.

No reigning champion can be labelled a dark horse but the hosts and Argentina dominate many people's picks for finalists and eventual winners. Familiarity seems to have bred some contempt around La Roja.

Perhaps last summer's dress rehearsal for these finals swayed people into believing Spain had been found out. Neymar and Brazil gave them a bloody nose at the Confederations Cup, when Selecao outclassed and out-thought Vicente Del Bosque's side. It was a warning, no doubt. But the coach has taken steps to ensure that Spain return to South America a year later in fine fettle and better prepared to defend their crown.

This is a squad that, despite widespread talk of being 'over the hill', remains in its prime - a point reinforced by Del Bosque on Thursday. Xavi is the obvious exception, with the 34-year-old coming off the back of a disappointing season by his standards. As lead conductor for club and country, the Catalan has already identified his successor - the "extraordinary" Koke - but it is still too soon to write off one of the most accomplished players the game has ever seen. The Catalan's legs may be slowing down but his mind is sharp, the telepathic connection with Andres Iniesta endures and he, alongside Iker Casillas, remains a leader in the squad.

The closest players to Xavi, in years at least, are David Villa and Xabi Alonso, both 32. Villa, Spain's record goalscorer but no longer crucial to Del Bosque, is stepping away from international football after the summer, but Alonso is far from finished. Iniesta turned 30 last month but other key figures remain in their twenties. The squad as a whole has an average age of 28, similar to Brazil (27.6) and Argentina (28.4).

The ageing process is not affecting the Spain squad in the way some suggest, but they are the most seasoned group at the finals. The average number of international caps per player in the 23-man squad is 58 - a number only beaten by Bosnia (60) and close to double that of Argentina (31) and Brazil (29). Only four players in Del Bosque's party weren't in the 23 which cruised to victory at Euro 2012, while their probable starting XI to face the Dutch contains eight players who also started the 2010 World Cup final against the same opponents. This is a group of serial winners and they have been given a point to prove.

More than anything else, last summer's humbling at the Maracana will have eradicated any hint of complacency. After winning the last three major tournaments and now having gone 53 qualifiers without defeat, perhaps a mental slip was to be expected. The game has been so easy for Spain; so too has winning. Their Maracana mauling means over-confidence will not be a problem this summer.

Perhaps complacency had extended to the bench. Plan A had served Spain so well for so long, that Plan B had been forgotten. In Brazil, Del Bosque observed the need for greater variety in the face of power and pace. There too was where he found it.

After wining and dining Diego Costa, Del Bosque persuaded the Brazil-born striker to turn his back his homeland after two appearances under Luis Felipe Scolari and switch allegiance. Costa's style does not necessarily complement Spain's traditional subtle, patient ethos, but Del Bosque is no snob. The striker demonstrated how successful his battering ram approach can be by helping to fire Atletico Madrid to La Liga glory and the Champions League final. The Chelsea-bound hit-man occupies defenders, opening up space and time for the creative forces behind him.

Despite courting Costa, Del Bosque may opt to retain the rush-forward formation which helped them to glory at Euro 2012. He began and concluded the qualification campaign with such a system, but tried a variety of strikers in the six matches between, with David Villa playing four games, and Roberto Soldado and Michu failing to sufficiently impress in their single appearances. Even if Costa is kept in reserve, especially against stronger opposition, Spain are stronger for his presence.

At the other end, Del Bosque need not worry. His side conceded only three goals - none away from home - on their way to Brazil.

Casillas has watched far more football than he has played over the last 18 months, but while his Champions League final error was unfortunate, Del Bosque won't look upon it as anything other than a glitch. In front of him, the back four is as safe as any in Brazil, with Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Jordi Alba all extremely familiar with their roles and each other. Del Bosque has a decision to make at right-back between the forward-thinking Juanfran and rock-solid Cesar Azpilicueta but either is a capable option.

With the addition of Costa, it is difficult to identify a vulnerability in this Spain squad. Rivals Brazil ironically lack a top class centre-forward, while, like Argentina, the quality of the hosts' defence does not match their attacking talent.

Spain, though, cannot afford to ease into this World Cup as they did the last, when they were beaten by Switzerland in their opener. Italy also held the holders in their first game at Euro 2012. But the result of Friday's clash with the Netherlands will likely go far in deciding the winner of Group B, with the runners-up probably facingg Brazil in the second round. Of course, Chile will also have a huge say, but Spain's target will be to top the table.

There will be no fear, though, if Spain do come up against Brazil. The holders lack a talismanic superstar like Neymar or Lionel Messi, but Del Bosque has plenty of individual quality within his ranks through the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Juan Mata, David Silva, Santi Cazorla and Pedro. The champions' strength is the absence of any weakness. That, and an unrivalled will to win that makes them as dangerous as ever.

Ian Watson - follow him on Twitter

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