Spain might be ready to reclaim top spot in world football next summer
MADRID -- It feels as though Europe's heavyweights are taking it in turns to remind the likes of Brazil, Argentina and anyone else who back their chances of winning the World Cup in 2018 that the real favourites are those who have recent experience of lifting the trophy. Germany delivered an ominous statement of intent by winning the Confederations Cup this summer without the majority of their established stars, relying instead on the country's emerging youngsters to keep the production line of success rolling.
Then France, who were unfortunate not to win Euro 2016 on home soil last year, have produced convincing performances and victories in recent outings against England and the Netherlands with a squad of players that have the potential to emulate the golden boys of 1998. Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, N'Golo Kante, Benjamin Mendy -- the list goes on for Les Bleus. And they, like Germany, are building a head of steam just in time for the World Cup.
But Spain are perhaps as strong as them both, with their 3-0 demolition of Italy in Madrid -- and it was a demolition that could have ended with a 6-0 scoreline -- proving that their transitional period is over and that they are now genuine contenders again.
Spain were virtually unbeatable on the world stage between 2008 and 2014, when their group-stage exit from Brazil 2014 as reigning world champions signalled the end of an era for the team that had finally ended the nation's desperate wait for a World Cup. Vicente del Bosque continued as coach until Euro 2016, when Italy knocked them out in the second round, but Julen Lopetegui has revived them and Saturday's win over the Azzurri on Saturday confirmed that they are back to their best.
Spain even went back to the days of playing with a "false nine," a throwback to Del Bosque's 2010 World Cup winners, with Isco playing in an advanced role while Alvaro Morata and veteran David Villa started on the bench.
Brazil 2014 was a write-off for Spain, and Euro 2016 was not much better, but the hangover has now lifted and it only takes a look at the list of players who cannot even get into Lopetegui's squad to emphasise the depth of quality La Roja have at their disposal. Not for the first time, there was no place in the squad for Cesc Fabregas, Juan Mata or Ander Herrera, three established Premier League performers.
Gabi, the Atletico Madrid captain, still waits for his first Spain cap -- a call now unlikely to come at the age of 34 -- while Diego Costa's self-imposed exile in Brazil saw the Chelsea forward miss out on this squad. Once he returns to action at Chelsea (or, most likely, Atletico), Costa will probably force his way back in, as may Fernando Llorente and possibly even Fernando Torres. But there are young stars now emerging and thriving for Spain, with Real Madrid's Marco Asensio the most exciting of them all.
Isco is now a certain starter, and David de Gea has established himself in goal, but the old guard of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique still command the defence in front of the Manchester United goalkeeper, with Sergio Busquets remaining in place in the front of the back four.
Spain's bench is another reason to back their prospects of going all the way in Russia next year. Alvaro Morata came off the bench to score late in the game against Italy but Lopetegui can also call on Atletico's outstanding midfielder Saul Niguez, Bayern Munich's Thiago Alcantara and Chelsea's consistently reliable Pedro.
Spain know how to win, and many of their World Cup winning squad remain, so they will have an advantage over the French next year simply because for all their potential, Les Bleus do not yet possess the winning track record of Spain's top players.
Germany? If they were to go toe-to-toe with Spain, it would be impossible to call. The organisation, power, confidence and class of Joachim Low's squad would be a tough match for Spain's flair, belief, depth and individual game-changers like Isco and Asensio. Still, if you are on a level with Germany, it is not a bad place to be.
Some nations (England and the Netherlands, take a bow) seem to forever be in a state of transition, waiting for a new generation to finally restore the glories of yesteryear. Yet Spain have just endured two years of relative pain before emerging on the other side. As Italy discovered, Spain are now back in a pretty impressive place.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_