Watching England narrowly pip Slovenia and qualify for Russia, the night before Spain also secured their place by defeating Albania 3-0, was like watching the Grimsby youth-club disco make way for the Bolshoi Ballet. Julen Lopetegui’s Spain, refreshed and motivated by the change of coach, and with a seemingly endless cache of arms to employ on the front line, obliterated a half-decent Albanian side with a first-half display on Friday night which should rightly frighten the other feasible World Cup aspirants. With Carvajal, Iniesta, Busquets and Morata all missing, Spain turned on a display of improvisation and imagination that took them to a 3-0 half-time score which enabled them to rest a little in the second half – allowing Albania to twice hit the woodwork. But Albania are a decent side, with 13 points so far in the group stage. They looked a much better team than England, for example.
The game started at 20.45 Spanish time in Alicante, and rarely can a national anthem have been so keenly anticipated as this one, with the entire nation seemingly transfixed by the Gerard Piqué issue. Would he hold his head up, bow it in rebellion, sing the Catalan anthem or break into a rendition of ‘The times they are a changin’? In the end, he held his head up like a good patriot, fortunate in the sense that the Spanish national anthem has no lyrics, because nobody could agree on what they should be – which kind of sums up the country, basically. But hey – the football team looks damn good again. His every touch was of course booed by a certain percentage of the crowd, but there were outbreaks of applause too, interestingly brought into zoom focus by the TVE1 cameras, normally partial to a bit of good censorship. The commentator team, a gaggle of hoary old bar-flies who simply never put a sock in it for the full ninety minutes, seemed curiously sympathetic towards the devil incarnate, praising his performance in general and calling him ‘sensible’ for actively seeking the yellow card which means he won’t have to travel to Israel for Monday’s game – and thus prolong the national agony any further. Half-way through the second half, Lopetegui replaced him with Nacho, and we could get back to watching the football.
There was plenty to look at and talk about. Carvajal’s injury meant that Alvaro Odriozola, a wee lad whose parents own a posh bar some 200 metres from this keyboard and who grew up in my neighbourhood, was handed his national debut after breaking into the Real Sociedad side at the end of last season in spectacular fashion. The even more spectacular aspect of this sudden explosion onto the scene is that Odriozola was not particularly rated as a reserve team player, and had hardly registered on the local Richter Scale before injuries to the two full-backs in front of him in the pecking order forced Eusebio’s hand. The rest, as they say….is more about the future than the history. The Spanish commentators, rarely given to raving about a player from Real Sociedad, were spluttering their praises at his first-half performance, tripping over their adjectives and almost salivating into their microphones. When the full-back hared down the right and crossed for Thiago to head home the third, one of them exclaimed ‘Madre mía! Este chaval es buenísimo!’ (Mother of mine! This kid is amazing!).
Valencia’s Rodrigo was not making his debut, but he might as well have been, relatively unknown as he is. In his third game for Spain, he opened the scoring with a cracker and generally made a good nuisance of himself. With Morata, Costa and Aspas for competition, he may struggle to make the Russian squad, but he looked pretty assured. The old warhorse Aduriz came on for the final twenty, but you suspect that neither he nor David Villa (nor Fernando Torres) are being seriously considered for the trip to Russia next year. And there’s the rub. This was by means a first team, but almost everyone acquitted themselves well. Atlético’s Saúl, surprisingly picked to start before Asier Illarramendi (who you would have thought would more naturally replace the injured Busquets) played excellently, operating just in front of the two organisers, Koke and Thiago. Illarramendi will probably start against Israel, but it proves the point about the almost endless depth of the squad.
It would have been fairly easy to have cobbled together a side from the following players, quite apart from the four aforementioned starters who were absent. How about Iago Aspas, Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla, Pedro, Mata, Azpilicueta, Monreal, Marcos Llorente, Ceballos, Kepa (Athletic’s new goalie), Iñaki Williams…I could go on. It’s scary. And of those who did play, David Silva seems to endlessly bewitch and bother, and is an absolute delight to watch. Not sure about the new buzz-cut though. Isco, his willing accomplice, is going through some sort of magical phase, unable to do anything wrong, incapable of losing the ball, and patently enjoying himself. You watch him find space where there is none, watch him suddenly switch the direction of play with an uncanny ability to move his body away from an opponent, and you could be fooled for thinking you were watching the world’s top player at the moment. He’s as good as that – ask Italy.
Nevertheless, euphoria at this stage is never too wise. Germany also have strength, solidity and flair, and the French are not far behind. Busquets and Iniesta are not quite the forces they were, and despite the midfield luxuries on tap, neither Thiago nor Koke can quite dictate the play as Xavi once did. Spain’s strengths seem now to lie in those ‘media punta’ positions, between the midfield and the forwards – players like Silva and Isco who are experts at playing ‘entre lineas’ (between the lines), backed up by speedy full-backs and ball-playing strikers (Morata, Aspas, Costa) who can drop and assist the build-up, if necessary. Against Albania, it was also apparent that Lopetegui likes his players to pressure the opposition as high as possible, given that his full-backs are so quick and can recover positions if necessary. Poor Albania were rarely given time on the ball, and although they were technically quite accomplished, their overall possession time was quite poor. In goal, it might be time for someone to take over from Pepe Reina as De Gea’s understudy, and the excellent Kepa might be the man. But overall, it looks promising.
Now that qualification is secured there should be run-outs for others on Monday night, and Lopetegui can bask in the light of a job well done, so far. Spain want their crown back, and the feel-good factor that has returned to the national squad scene, despite the shenanigans over the Catalan issue, should re-establish the red-shirted ones to the short-list of favourites for the title.