World Cup 2014 Previews Group B: Spain

By Ty Duffy

Team: Spain
Nickname: La Furia Roja
Group: B
Schedule: June 13 vs. Netherlands, June 18 vs. Chile, June 23 vs. Australia
World Cup History: Champions (2010), Semifinals (1950), Quarterfinals (1934, 1986, 1994, 2002)
Rankings: FIFA (1), SPI (3)
Winning Odds: 6-1

Spain produced a “golden generation.” Factoring in the collective success of the players at club and international level, perhaps it was the golden generation in soccer history. Since 2008, their talisman, Xavi Hernandez, has won four Spanish titles, two Champions Leagues, a World Cup and two European championships. The problem with that much success: playing a lot of games. Over that six-season span, Xavi has appeared 383 times for Barcelona and Spain. And that is while Barcelona was reserving him for important matches the past two seasons.

Xavi has also aged six years. He’s now 34. His compatriots, into or just entering their primes in 2008, are now on the down slope. Carles Puyol has retired from international play. Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, Iker Casillas, Fernando Torres and David Villa are 30 or older. Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets are the only probable Spanish starters under 27. None have fallen into disrepair, but all are coming off full-length European club seasons.

Age and mileage take their toll. It’s exceedingly difficult to maintain the elite level of focus and continuity required, while adjusting to an ever-evolving sport. That’s why winning twice in a row was historic, winning three was unprecedented and winning a fourth would be downright silly.

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Qualifying Form: Spain won UEFA Group I, edging France by three points. They finished with a 6-0-2 record and a +11 goal margin.

Manager: Vicente Del Bosque has been at the helm for Spain’s last two wins at World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012. He has also won the Champions League twice with Real Madrid in the early 2000s. Not a shabby résumé. He was also granted a hereditary title following Spain’s World Cup win. He’s officially “the 1st Marquis of Del Bosque.”

Tactics: Spain lets you adjust to them. Midfielders will be spaced differently. But, essentially, Spain play a 4-3-3. They use their precise, technical passing ability to smother the ball for about 70-80 percent of the match. Chasing opponents tire, soften and allow Spain to score. Wins. Trophies. The one real question is who leads the line up front. They were thin there at Euro 2012, which saw Cesc Fabregas deployed as a “false nine.” With better options in 2014, the Spanish may field a true one.

Player to Watch: Brazilian-born striker Diego Costa abandoned the host country, switching registrations to Spain after being granted citizenship in September. That, to put it bluntly, is one hell of a signing. The 25-year-old is coming off a monster season for Atletico Madrid, scoring 36 goals in 50 total appearances. Chelsea are planning to bring him in for $53 million.

Squad: Alberto Moreno, a 21-year-old defender, is the lone member of Spain’s 30-man provisional squad not playing for a Champions League club in a top four European League. He plies his trade for Sevilla, who finished fifth. In case three-straight tournament wins did not make it evident, this squad is gifted and deep.

Midfield is the strength as per usual. Barcelona’s Xavi and Iniesta set the “tiki-taka” tone. But Spain can also firm up the defense with Alonso and Busquets and add verve and incision with Fabregas, Mata, Silva and Navas. A tough first season at Real Madrid bumped Isco out of even the provisional squad. Spain also has more firepower up front than in years past. Costa is an excellent option. So is Alvaro Negredo, who scored when he saw the pitch for Manchester City and has been in excellent form for the national team. David Villa is still kicking as well.

Iker Casillas has been splitting time with Diego Lopez at Real Madrid, though only because both have been excellent. The one real “concern” is defense. Though, even then, Piqué and Ramos are fine enough for Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively. They hold the ball so long that is seldom a worry. The Spanish have allowed four goals in their last 14 competitive matches (Euro 2012 and World Cup Qualifying)

Group Outlook: The Spanish are clear favorites in the group. Group B is, in no way, a group of death. That said, Chile is a capable South American team. Australia can be robust, spirited and annoying. Things could get interesting if the Spanish start slow and fail to beat the Netherlands. Winning this group or finishing second is the difference between Croatia/Mexico/Cameroon in the first knockout round and Brazil.

Cross-Continental Travel: European teams don’t travel well. On the home continent, the Europeans have won nine of 10 World Cups. Outside Europe, European clubs have only won once in nine attempts. Though, that one win was Spain winning in South Africa in 2010.

Notable WAG: Spanish soccer players do alright with the ladies. Shakira is a mere name on a formidable list. But we’ll go with lovely Spanish TV presenter Sara Carbonero, longtime girlfriend of Iker Casillas. Their post-match interview was one of the highlights from the 2010 World Cup. My wife telling me I looked like him was my personal highlight from the 2010 World Cup.

Arbitrary Spanish Power Ranking: 1. Pablo Picasso 2. El Greco 3. El Cid 4. Jose Andrés 5. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario

[Photos via Getty]