Spain feeling cool, calm, confident thanks to Lopetegui
NOTE: This has been translated from an original piece on ESPN Deportes.
Spain has taken the huge burden of past World Cup failures and become a favorite to win the trophy at Russia 2018. After the fiasco experienced at the last European Championships and the embarrassment in Brazil 2014, the Spain national team will head into its first World Cup under the helm of Julen Lopetegui as manager, boasting new ambitions and a solid roster.
Spain has yet to play two important friendlies against Germany and Argentina. However, Lopetegui's Spain has a 16-match unbeaten streak, with 13 wins and three draws. La Roja was outstanding in World Cup qualifying, with a draw in Turin against Italy and important wins at the Bernabeu (3-0) against the Azzurri and 2-0 at Saint-Denis over France. That's why Spain is exuding optimism around a side and a manager who offers a calming presence.
First of all, Lopetegui keeps his cool because Spain's World Cup group is "complicated, tough and hard," in the manager's own words. He wanted to shy away any far-fetched confidence following the draw in December. "Morocco advanced undefeated after the qualifiers, Iran didn't allow many goals scored against them and Portugal is the current European champion," said Lopetegui. In his opinion, Spain's opening match against a Portugal side led by Cristiano Ronaldo will be a true baptism of fire.
"It could be a final match in advance," said.
The main players
Despite Lopetegui's restraint, the vibe surrounding the Spain team could not be better. The renovation process led by the manager has been satisfying for a team that's stayed true to its football identity, set first by Luis Aragones back in his days as manager and perfected by Vicente Del Bosque to a new level of excellence before everything fell apart due to a reasonable fatigue within the aging status quo.
It was the dawn of an era; however, it did not mean the end of an approach, quite simply because this new Spain has undeniably kept the football philosophy that worked quite well for previous eras and that they hope will help them to move forward in Russia.
The extreme makeover underwent by Spain is evident, especially if you compare the current team to the one that played on June 27, 2016, the day Spain was eliminated from the Euros. Lopetegui is working with a solid core of players and a clear tactical system, led by David De Gea, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Koke, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and David Silva, undeniable presences in every lineup and all assured their spots in the squad that heads to Russia.
Next to them, you will certainly see names like Dani Carvajal, Pepe Reina, Alvaro Morata, Thiago, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Saul, Isco, Marc Bartra, Sergi Roberto or Nacho Fernandez. However, decisions are yet to be made regarding Diego Costa, in particular, and several other youngsters or several snubs -- names that used to be surefire mentions on former rosters. The likes of Marco Asensio, Iago Aspas, Suso, Jose Callejon, Rodrigo, Luis Alberto, Asier Illarramendi, Vitolo, Alvaro Odriozola or even Gerard Deulofeu could emerge as the definitive names who will be called upon to attend a very special tournament for Spanish football.
La Roja, 10 years after winning the European Championships that marked the start of the best era in its history and placed it atop the world football stage, is trying to reinvent itself and find success again. It will face Germany and Brazil, Argentina and maybe Russia or Belgium. Who knows: perhaps England, France or Uruguay will be standing in their path.
The first test, however, will be Portugal on June 15 in Sochi. That's the departure point for another hopeful conquest.