Revamped Spain take direct route to goal

Left: Forward Rodrigo Moreno slotting past Croatia goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic to put Spain 4-0 up in their Uefa Nations League match at the Martinez Valero Stadium in Elche on Tuesday. Below: Croatia midfielder Luka Modric (No. 10) and defender Sime Vr
Above: Forward Rodrigo Moreno slotting past Croatia goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic to put Spain 4-0 up in their Uefa Nations League match at the Martinez Valero Stadium in Elche on Tuesday.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Left: Forward Rodrigo Moreno slotting past Croatia goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic to put Spain 4-0 up in their Uefa Nations League match at the Martinez Valero Stadium in Elche on Tuesday. Below: Croatia midfielder Luka Modric (No. 10) and defender Sime Vr
Above: Croatia midfielder Luka Modric (No. 10) and defender Sime Vrsaljko are crestfallen after the 6-0 drubbing.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

6-0 thumping of World Cup finalists Croatia raises hopes of a return to their glory days

ELCHE (Spain) • Luis Enrique's makeover of Spain looks to be more than skin-deep, with dominant displays backed up by impressive scorelines - 2-1 over England followed up by Tuesday's 6-0 demolition of World Cup finalists Croatia.

What used to be a patient passing game has now given way to incision, precision and goals as the home fans, already heartened by what they had seen at Wembley last Saturday, got a first glimpse of their new-look national team in the flesh three days later and they could not have been happier.

It is eight years now since La Roja were in a World Cup final, with their glory days slipping further away. And yet, while it is only eight weeks since Croatia were there, Enrique's men hammered them 6-0 in Elche, raising hopes of a return to their glory days.

"It would be very easy to say that this is my Spain, generating many chances and conceding few goals, but the truth is that I am changing things very fast," Enrique, who has promised Spain will continue to dominate possession but be faster, more direct and less predictable in the final third, said.

Saul Niguez, who Enrique has deemed a "much-improved model" of himself, did not play a minute at the World Cup, but this is a different era and he appears set to lead it as a symbol of a new Spain.

In the two games under former Barcelona boss Enrique, he has opened the scoring both times and the Estadio Martinez Valero crowd erupted when the hometown hero leapt to head in Spain's opener, before giving him a standing ovation when the Atletico Madrid midfielder was withdrawn.

Marco Asensio was also serenaded after the forward scored the second, inspired the third - which led to an own goal by goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic - and provided three assists.

Rodrigo Moreno, another scorer in London, got the fourth, Sergio Ramos nabbed the fifth and Isco struck the sixth as the memories of the summer were pushed aside, Croatia's especially.

There were five absentees from the Spain side who were knocked out by Russia in the last 16 of the World Cup - David Silva, Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique all announced their international retirements in the aftermath while Jordi Alba and Koke were left out.

But a new generation is coming through and Enrique will blood them through the "evolution" of Spain's trademark tiki-taka style.

By the end of the Nations League match, with Spain now top of League A's Group Two on six points, Saul, Asensio, Dani Ceballos, Jose Luis Gaya and Rodri - all 23 and under - had played and shone.

For Croatia, though, this was truly shocking. Danijel Subasic and Mario Mandzukic have since hung up their international boots, while Dejan Lovren, Ante Rebic and Ivan Strinic were missing, but it was more than that.

They had no response to the heaviest defeat in their history but coach Zlatko Dalic urged his side not to "cry about it and improve".

Spain had opened the floodgates with a wonderful goal, with Niguez running in from deep to plant his header from Dani Carvajal's trivela cross.

Asensio also left Enrique running out of superlatives with two classic long-range strikes in quick succession - the first arrowing into the net, having not scored in 16 games for Spain before, and the second smacking the bar and going in off Kalinic's back.

"He has a special way of hitting the ball," said the 48-year-old, before adding, "everything has been perfect this week, but we will have to see what happens in the future".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2018, with the headline 'Revamped Spain take direct route to goal'. Print Edition | Subscribe