New-look Spain seek return to old glory

2010 champions begin tough World Cup qualifying campaign against Liechtenstein

MADRID • Julen Lopetegui is the man charged with restoring Spain's former glories, after the country's national football team made an early exit at Euro 2016.

But he faces a demanding task in just getting them to 2018 World Cup Finals in two years' time with their Euros conquerors Italy lying in wait in qualifying.

Spain have not lost a World Cup qualifier for a remarkable 23 years and that record should not be challenged when Liechtenstein visit Leon today at the start of the long road to Russia.

Yet, Lopetegui's new era needs to hit the ground running with a trip to Italy next up early next month as only the group winners are guaranteed to qualify.

His appointment after Vicente del Bosque's resignation was generally seen as an underwhelming one. But the former Porto manager has managed to ward off the scepticism after a convincing 2-0 win away to Belgium in a friendly on his debut.

Brazilian-born Diego Costa training in Las Rozas, on the outskirts of Madrid, on Saturday. The striker, left out of Spain's Euros squad, hopes to feature in their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Tellingly, he has begun to inject fresh blood and has not shied away from big decisions.

Captain and record caps holder Iker Casillas was dropped from the squad for the Belgium game, as was two-time European champion and World Cup winner Cesc Fabregas.

The selection of Fabregas after a poor season with Chelsea ahead of Koke, 24, and Thiago Alcantara, 25, at the Euros was an unpopular one.

Significantly, having played just a combined 45 minutes in France, the Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich midfielders played all 90 minutes in Belgium.

Dani Carvajal, 24, replaced 31-year-old Juanfran at right back, while, Vitolo, 26, who missed out on the Euros, played a crucial role in both goals scored by David Silva.

"The young players are here because I believe that they deserve to be and they have the ability," said Lopetegui.

"Little by little they have to assume that role and continue developing."

Crucially, Lopetegui has already coached David de Gea, Carvajal, Saul Niguez, Koke, Thiago and Alvaro Morata in his time with the Spanish youth teams. That youthful core added to the likes of Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Silva still in their prime.

That means there is no reason why Spain should not be contenders in Russia, if the manager rekindles the hunger lost in the final years of del Bosque's reign.

A change of manager even seems to have done Diego Costa good as the Chelsea striker showed in Brussels much more of the controlled aggression that saw him recruited by del Bosque than the timid shadow of himself he has often seemed in a Spain shirt.

"Diego was very good, like the rest of the team," Lopetegui told Marca yesterday.

"I am among those who think that, if the group works, then the individuals are strengthened."

Now Spain need to show the same spirit against Liechtenstein, who Lopetegui feels will play a defensive game. After that, come Italy and Albania but Lopetegui would not be drawn on those games.

"You cannot ride two horses at once, we have to ride one which is this game and nothing more," he said.



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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2016, with the headline 'New-look Spain seek return to old glory'. Subscribe