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Sep 4, 2014

As Spain's era ends, it is really Germany's turn?

The ESPN FC team give their opinion on Euro 2016's growth from 16 to 24 teams and how much it will water down the competition.

Joachim Low had just made history, so was understandably keen to point to all the key dates and milestones that led to that moment -- with one conspicuous omission.

As the German manager sat in the Maracana press room following his side's World Cup win back in July, he referenced the country's 2000 coaching revolution as well as the influence of Jurgen Klinsmann back in 2006. April 23, 2013 was not mentioned but many in the squad knew its significance. It was the night Bayern Munich absolutely buried Barcelona 4-0 at the Allianz Arena and laid their own path to a first Champions League trophy in 12 years.

The exact opposition and manner in which they were beaten were almost as important as the eventual silverware. After a half-decade of dominance, that match marked the moment when the Bayern/Germany core finally surpassed that of Barcelona/Spain. Many of the Bayern players felt it was a key fixture in the development of the national team, too; the point at which so many of them "transformed" from dominant domestic players into international winners. It directly led to the Maracana and the culmination of an era in German football.

The wonder, however, is whether it also represented the culmination of an era in international football.

Germany's assumption of Spain's throne didn't just come from their own development; it came from the night Bayern humiliated Barcelona.

It may be some time until we see a club-country duel as deep and cohesive as that between Bayern/Germany and Barcelona/Spain. It may also be why these Euro 2016 qualifiers are someway intriguing despite the uncompetitive nature of the groups.

Consider one of the most striking elements straight away. This will be the first campaign in over a decade in which neither Philipp Lahm nor Xavi are involved, not to mention some of their influential teammates. That is far more important than just because of the prominent figures they are. It is also because of the standards they set and what they represent.

Lahm and Xavi were defining players and ideologues for their clubs and their countries, greatly deepening the integration of both. It gave them even more advantages over virtually every other nation, accentuating the effect of their coaching infrastructures.

It is no coincidence that the two countries who implemented the two most impressive football revolutions of the past two decades ended up dominating the past six years. Those changes made them the two finest sides in the world. Furthermore, the simultaneous development of two of their biggest club teams then made them two of the finest in international history.

It will be strange to see Spain move forward without Xavi given what he has meant to La Roja's dynasty.

There are certainly few periods in the past to compare to the last few years. In fact, there's arguably only been one period in football history that had such a distinct crossover between the primary teams at club and international level.

For Spain/Barcelona and Germany/Bayern 2008-14, read Netherlands/Ajax and West Germany/Bayern 1968-1974. There are numerous parallels from the status of the players, to the structures that created then and the styles of football. You can almost draw a direct line from one era to another. The links between club and country created teams more cohesive than all other opposition and put them on a level far above.

Just as in 1974, though, those links are finally starting to loosen after the World Cup. The international retirement of Lahm and transfer of Toni Kroos to Real Madrid mean Bayern already have a smaller proportion of players in the German squad. Seven dropped to four for the 4-2 friendly defeat against Argentina.

There are parallels in the Netherlands/West Germany duel of the late-60s and early 70s, another club/country duel.

Spain, meanwhile, started their 1-0 friendly defeat to France on Thursday with just one Barcelona player and finished with none. That is a far cry from the zenith of the 2010 World Cup final, when the Catalan club had seven squad members involved in the action.

The effects of this should be obvious. In a current football climate when the power of national associations has greatly declined against that of the clubs, most international managers have less time to prepare and as a result, the majority of countries are therefore largely patched together outfits. They generally can't get close to the fluency of domestic sides.

However, if a coach can easily transport the connections and partnerships of a club team to the international level, then he has an immediate advantage. If that also happens in the context of superior overall coaching, he is even further ahead. That has been the case for Low and Vicente Del Bosque for the last half-decade but that may now be starting to change.

As Spain evolve and modernize beyond their Barcelona core, it can only be a change for the better.

There were arguably pointers to this at the World Cup in Brazil, and not just because Spain encountered an inevitable decline after so much time at the top. You only had to look at the progress of the Netherlands and Argentina. In contrast to the notional purity of the German and Spanish approaches -- possession, pressing and proactive control of the ball itself -- these were teams that made an extreme virtue of their pragmatism.

Argentina in particular went from formation to formation while formidably battling their way through. Teams like the French can echo this, while Juventus have a considerable influence in the Italian squad.

None of this is to say that Germany are not the obvious outstanding team, nor that there is no way back for the new Spain. It is that it may not be quite as obvious as in the last few years. We may not see the same distinctive gaps. We may have reached another milestone.

Miguel Delaney

Miguel Delaney is a London-based correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called "Stuttgart to Saipan" (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011. Follow him on Twitter @MiguelDelaney.

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