As one of the main favorites to lift the World Cup, Spain incredulously still has a lot to prove. I know that sounds a touch ridiculous seeing as though they dominated the sport in such egregious fashion from 2008-2012, but now that the full weight of expectation still sleeps tightly on their crown, they must continually succeed. The country tasted triumph and they realized it was wholly worth the wait.
The players, simply put, are too good to not expect them to end the tournament victoriously. But what makes Spain a truly interesting story heading into Russia is seeing what these players can actually accomplish.
They have the best goalkeeper in the world in David de Gea. I’m struggling to even think of one human being in his class. He’s that good. I haven’t witnessed a keeper you could actually build a team around since Gianluigi Buffon (and before him…I would go as far back as icon Lev Yashin…de Gea is on course to be genre defining). Spain has one of the best centre backs in the world in super villain Sergio Ramos. He has had time to dry Mohamed Salah’s tears off his shoulder and will be ready for the Cup. The Spanish also have a feared full back corp with Jordi Alba on the left and right back Dani Carvajal (who was injured in the Champions League final and so could crucially miss the opening match or two) patrolling the flanks. They will be sturdy at the back with a somewhat slowed but technically gifted Gerard Piqué still proving quite handy in the middle of defence as well.
The biggest headline for Spain will be their hero Andrés Iniesta. The Magician. The Maestro. The Little Wizard. The Phantom. The Puppetmaster. The Sniper. The First of His Name. Whatever you want to call him, Iniesta will certainly start and he will certainly wear the armband. It is his last World Cup and his own pride as well of that of his country will be resting on his shoulders. The question is can he go the full 90 minutes? I am inclined to say ‘no’ but what he can provide in midfield behind the forwards is worth it for the 60-70 minutes he can give you. His poise and creativity on the ball will go down in history. His cup winning goals will be turned into cinema. He still has it all and what he lacks in pace he more than makes up for with clever runs and balls in to the players paid to score and celebrate. Not to mention, he will have the security of knowing his Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets will be the rock and anchor in the middle allowing Iniesta to pull strings further forward. I cannot overstate how imperative it is to have an intelligent and disciplined holding midfielder protecting the back four to keep a team ticking towards glory. It is vital. And Spain has that in Busquets leaving Iniesta (and Thiago Alcântara) to innovate. Football will exist without the number 6 of Spain, no question, but it will be left nursing the wound of trying to survive without Andrés’s intrinsic beauty. And this may be his most difficult test.
Spain’s attack will be a bona fide mystery. It’s unclear what exactly to expect from the Spanish going forward. Obviously, they have the firepower but can this unit gel and be effective in their roles against an adept defensive back line? Can the attack excel on its own and not rely on the midfield to shine and constantly over deliver? There will not be a false 9 formation as Spain has in the past wont to deploy, so the strikers will have to earn their keep. David Silva and Isco will be expertly supporting the attacker (don’t forget absolutely gangster and one of my fave players in the world Marco Asensio is on the bench as well), which should be Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa or Valencia’s Rodrigo Moreno (Iago Aspas, averaging an impressive goal every other game in La Liga over the last 3 seasons for Celta de Vigo, also on this team and has proven to be a favorite in international matches). I was in the stands this past March in Madrid when Isco effortlessly notched a hat trick in Spain’s 7-1 mauling of Argentina. What I took from that match was Diego Costa would be my starting Spanish striker and is definitively still dangerous, and that Isco can change a game single-handedly. Isco is too much for defences to handle when he is on song. He has even usurped Gareth Bale for a starting spot in Real Madrid’s vaunted front 3. He is strong. Quick. Clinical. And brilliant with the ball at his feet. Isco is down as a favorite, for me, for the Golden Boot. The passing and efficiency of the front 6 is breathtaking and why I’m so excited to watch them potentially, at least in theory and on paper, unfurl themselves in Russia.
Spain has what it takes to lift the Cup. I wonder about their stability under real and potent pressure. I wonder who will carry the mantel of scoring the goals. Luckily for La Rioja, they start the World Cup versus a talented, but vehemently weaker, Portugal side, so will know the answers to these questions quite quickly. The world’s greatest player knows these Spanish charges inside and out and will have no hesitation in exploiting their weaknesses. That is what Cristiano Ronaldo does and if Spain can get a result against Portugal, they can use it as a lesson of what they need to shore up going into the business end of the tournament.
Spain will be up against Iran and Morocco as well in their group. Don’t get me wrong, these will be tests, too. But if you want to win this whole damn thing these matches should be six points in the pocket. Iran is Iran as they always are. Asia’s best team. Players playing all over the world. I honestly believe the runners up spot in this group is up for grabs. Obviously, Portugal will be lurking (a team severely lacking in elite quality outside of Ronaldo though) and favored, but it will come down to who can remain the most consistent in the matches not against Spain. Which is why Iran is firmly on my radar, and I’m Asian so #GoAsiaYall. If they can maniacally dedicate themselves to their organization and shape, the results will be there for the taking. Because they have the quality.
Morocco, too, will have massive dreams of reaching the knockouts. They are arguably Africa’s best team (I have Egypt ahead of them based solely on Salah and the other chunk of British resident players in their ranks; also keep in mind Egypt knocked Morocco out of AFCON 2017 in the quarterfinals after Zamalek’s Kahraba came on and broke Moroccan hearts with an 87th minute winner). Morocco will be flying to the tournament with a squad good enough to leave temperamental but wildly talented Sofiane Boufal at home, which says enough (Boufal is coming off a season for Southampton which saw him score the Premier League’s goal of the season, and my word was that gorgeous). The Moroccans will be confident and they have the advantage of playing Spain last. This means that they will have to be hot right out of the gate, pray Spain does the same, and try and get one or three points off a hopefully already qualified European giant.
What a group. One that will he dictated by the prowess and power of Spain. A country hungry for more and reservedly defiant that their dynasty has not ended. A team singularly focused on making their own story. Their own history.