The only nation from the continent to triumph in soccer’s global showpiece outside Europe, thanks to their triumph in South Africa four years ago, La Roja got an indication of the task facing them when they were humbled 3-0 by hosts Brazil in last year’s Confederations Cup final.
The pressure of the occasion at an intimidating Maracana Stadium in Rio De Janeiro, where July’s World Cup final will be held, was too much for them. They were unable to match Brazil’s intensity as they fell to what is one of only three defeats under coach Vicente Del Bosque in competitive games since he took over nearly six years ago.
That Brazil were able to dominate a Spain team used to having the lion’s share of possession was partly due to the absence of the injured Xabi Alonso, whose partnership with Sergio Busquets in midfield creates a stable platform for more creative team mates such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas to weave their magic.
Del Bosque, who masterminded Spain’s campaign in South Africa and led them to a second straight European title two years ago, will have learned from the reverse.
The former Real Madrid coach has only had to tinker with his team since he took over from the late Luis Aragones after the Euro 2008 triumph but has begun recently to give more playing time to some of Spain’s promising youngsters.
While he may be reluctant to experiment too much in Brazil and risk upsetting the balance of a side stuffed with proven champions, he will have recourse to players capable of coming off the bench and changing a game like creative midfield pair Thiago Alcantara and Koke.
Perhaps his most significant move was the controversial decision late last year to call Brazil-born forward Diego Costa into the squad, which provoked outrage in Costa’s native country.
Spain scored just eight times in seven games at the 2010 World Cup and Costa, who made his debut in a 1-0 friendly win against Italy in March, could provide the cutting edge that La Roja sometimes lack up front.
The 25-year-old has scored a hatful of goals for Atletico Madrid in La Liga and the Champions League this season, and his combative playing style, strength in the air and prowess shooting with either foot strike fear into any defence.
In Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and David Silva, Spain have some of the best passers in the game, and Del Bosque will be counting on Costa making the intelligent runs into space that have been so devastating at club level.
Another tactic Del Bosque has often used to excellent effect, particularly at Euro 2012, is playing without a traditional centre forward, with Fabregas in a roving attacking role as a so-called “false nine”.
Spain’s midfield revolves around the settled quartet of Alonso, Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta, while at the back Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique have formed a solid partnership in the middle, with the pacy Jordi Alba on the left.
With Alvaro Arbeloa apparently out of favour, Cesar Azpilicueta looks to be in line for the right-back slot and Del Bosque has stuck with his captain Iker Casillas in goal despite him losing his first-team place at Real Madrid.
A majority of these players have won more trophies at club and international level than any before them but Brazil proved at the Confederations Cup they can be beaten, and beaten well.
Nonetheless, few would bet against Del Bosque and his hugely talented squad defending their crown where no European side has managed to win in the seven World Cups held in North, Central and South America.
(Editing by Stephen Wood)