There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Spain seemed invincible. After landing their first title in 44 years at Euro 2008, they immediately followed it up with two more in 2010 and 2012 in a period of unprecedented dominance on the international stage.
That era of supremacy came to an abrupt end at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and the fall was sudden and steep. A humiliating 5-1 capitulation against the Netherlands followed by a 2-0 reverse at the hands of Chile saw all hope of retaining their crown disappear after only two matches.
They recovered from this disappointment to qualify for Euro 2016 in relative comfort, but an England-esque performance at the tournament saw them stumble through the group stage before a 2-0 defeat to Italy in the last 16 sent them packing.
Now, for the first time in three years, La Roja appear to have got their groove back. An 8-0 victory in Liechtenstein on Tuesday night followed a truly magnificent performance against Italy on Saturday, as they defeated their Euro 2016 conquerors 3-0 at the Bernabéu. Both sides were unrecognisable from those that met in France last summer, as an Isco-inspired Spain dominated from the outset, while Giampiero Ventura’s Italy were on the back foot throughout. A year truly is a long time in football.
Since taking over from Vicente del Bosque last summer, Spain manager Julen Lopetegui has been quietly rebuilding la selección in his own undemonstrative style. His was a slightly leftfield appointment given that he was about to take over at Wolves before the call came from the Spanish FA, but his experience managing the national side at most age-group levels made him a safe option. He appears to have the trust of the players and the faith of the fans, and has won praise for his tactical sense and adaptability.
On top of this, his job has been made a lot easier by the quality of the players at his disposal. He can rely on the vast experience of the likes of Sergio Ramos, Andrés Iniesta and Gerard Piqué, the dependability of Sergio Busquets and the brilliance of in-form Real Madrid pair Isco and Marco Asensio.
Isco’s outstanding performance against Italy is a continuation of the breathtaking form he has shown since the start of the year, and it is hard to think of many other players in world football who are currently playing at the same consistent level as the Andalusian. One that does come close is his young team-mate Asensio, who is enjoying an incredible start to the season for the Spanish champions.
Both players are brimming with the self-belief that comes with being a key part of the best team on the planet, and they seem to have had no problem transferring their club form over to the national side. The same can also be said of Ramos and right-back Dani Carvajal, who have both been superb for Zinedine Zidane’s all-conquering Real Madrid side and for Lopetegui’s Spain.
The confidence and freedom with which Isco and Asensio are currently playing could be of huge importance to Spain, as they seem fearless and unfazed by any challenge. This supreme confidence makes them willing to try the unexpected with total faith that it will come off, as evidenced by Isco’s stunning free-kick, as well as his delightful nutmeg and ‘sombrero’ of Marco Verratti.
Just as his predecessor del Bosque’s triumphant sides of 2010 and 2012 drew heavily on the success of Pep Guardiola’s great Barcelona team of the era, Lopetegui should be looking to play Madrid’s hot streak. Harnessing Real Madrid’s success and the confidence that it engenders in their Spanish contingent will help him push the national side back towards the top table of international football.
Del Bosque’s successful side was built around the likes of Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets, who were allowed to largely replicate their club roles for the national side. Isco’s part in the victory over Italy shows Lopetegui is keen to build the side around him, as he excelled in the free role that he was afforded, while the selection of Asensio for such an important game suggests that Lopetegui sees him as his first-choice forward.
With Spain now almost assured of a place in Russia next summer, it remains to be seen whether they will be able reproduce this level of performance in the tournament proper. But as long as Real Madrid and their Spanish stars keep flying high, this can only be good news for the national side.