As defending European champions and recent World Cup fools, Vicente del Bosque’s Spain have a point to prove ahead of next summer’s Euros.
The term “defending champions” can be misleading. Sometimes it can refer to the actual favorites of the competition. Sometimes it can refer to that one team that found their form at the right time last go around. Sometimes the side is fearsome. Sometimes the side is fraudulent. Sometimes it’s none of those things. Sometimes it’s all of those things.
Spain’s donning of the exalted title carries with it many cruxes. As the only international side to ever win three major competitions in a row — including a World Cup and two European Championships — they fully deserve to enter next summer’s Euros as “defending champions.” Though they were disgracefully bounced from the WC at the group stage last June in Brazil thanks to a Dutch locomotive and a Chilean steamboat, the term still carries weight. It wouldn’t usually, but considering the monumental achievement of Vicente del Bosque’s (and Luis Aragones’s) team from 2008 to 2012, there’s undoubtedly still an aura of, if not invincibility, pugnacity, around La Roja. Black-eye and all, they still feel like champions.
Spain welcome Ukraine this Friday for their next Euro 2016 qualifier. Both sides currently sit tied second in Group C on 9 points. La Roja have already lost one qualifying match to group leaders Slovakia but hold a superior goal tally (13 to Slovakia’s 8 and Ukraine’s 6) and differential (+10 to Slovakia’s +6 and Ukraine’s +5) to the rest of the group.
It’s no secret that La Roja are undergoing a generational shift. With the post-WC retirements of Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso, and David Villa, the core of Del Bosque’s squad now looks to the younger crop. Though that doesn’t always mean wisdom will be forfeited. The incoming Isco and Koke bring not only fresh legs to the team, but also a wealth of experience. Despite being young-in-age (Isco, 22; Koke, 23), both players have been vital pieces of title winning Spanish clubs at Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, respectively.
In fact, Del Bosque’s recent call-ups have really shaken up Spain’s talent pool. With a slew of players aiming to possibly earn their first ever cap for La Roja, the starting eleven against Ukraine could shock and awe.
This newest influx consists of Villarreal goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo, Sevilla winger Vitolo, Malaga forward Juanmi, and Juventus starlet Alvaro Morata.
These selections signal a new approach for Del Bosque. No longer will he be forced to choose his players based on the merit of their high-profile club play with Barca or Madrid. Previously, Del Bosque had little choice on the matter (not that he or anyone in his position would’ve chosen differently). When you have a side like Guardiola’s Barcelona dominating Europe and the World, you’d be a fool to not fashion your side in the same image. But now, he can get a little more creative, using the same intellect that made him a stellar coach at Real Madrid. That involves really digging into La Liga and dictating who deserves what. Will Asenjo, Vitolo, or Juanmi play a major part in Spain’s Euro run? Probably not. But Morata likely will. The Juve striker — the only one of the of the four with a cap; a trivial ten-minute cameo against Belarus in November — has experienced a coming of age while in Turin, and will likely play a big part in the months and years to come. His inclusion going forward could very well be one of VDB’s lasting stamps he leaves on La Roja when he does decide to leave.
Of course, Morata’s immediate future very much lies in the hands of Diego Costa, who once again had to pull out of international duty due to injury. Being undoubtedly the most effective forward Spain has at the moment, the fact that Costa can’t seem to get on the pitch with his Roja teammates for an extended run is worrying. A team going through a stylistic metamorphosis really needs to know its staff, especially when it consists of a brooding, unique specimen that is Costa.
But regardless of the transition being made, Spain still possess a rare blend of talent. The veteran leadership of Sergio Ramos, Iker Casillas, Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets will still be available, some of them for years to come. These players still thrive immensely on the domestic scale and will be invaluable once the Euros roll around.
Besides, this Roja side has changed well beyond the teamsheets. The fabric of their championship run has blended into a mixture of tiki-taka stylings and grinding sensibilities. The finesse of Xavi and Iniesta has largely been replaced with the industrious nature of Isco, Koke, and Cesc Fabregas, whose game is base much more on directness and physicality. While they’ll continue to see the lion’s share of possession from match-to-match, there’s no doubt that La Roja need new ID cards next summer in France. But recognizable or not, the “defense” of their title needs to be taken seriously. If not, they’re likely run away with the damn thing again.