Spain Preview: It's not your older brother's Spain,
Updated: Jun 13, 2018
even if we recognize some core characters. The greatest national dynasty of the 21st Century (2 Euros bookending the 2010 World Cup) was definitively ended by a Van Persie diving header for the ages, and Spain has largely rebuilt. One thing about that old team is that it was essentially Barcelona minus Messi plus Ramos and Casillas; they are now split amongst several clubs and there's no way to get that huge advantage that came with so many playing together year-round.
What's good: The best keeper in the world, to me, in David De Gea, who almost always makes a spectacular save or three; the Odd Couple pairing of the villainous Ramos and Pique at the back; and a bountiful set of options to fill this out, including the excellent Azpilcueta, a truly versatile fellow.
After that, things get a lot more complicated for me. Iniesta is far less valuable when his team isn't dominating the ball and I don't trust Busquets' lack of speed against the thoroughbreds of the top teams (perhaps Bayern's Thiago Alcantara replaces him? This suggestion has induced mockery from veteran Spain-watchers). Still, I think the less Spain has the ball, the less persuasive he is, and all the other top teams (and some not so great, like England) can hit the jets on the counter. I expect I will have to bow down to the icon that is Busquets, but that's where I stand at this point.
Things get a whole lot more complicated up front. David Silva is timeless excellence, a master at finding seams and unlocking tightly packed defenses. His patience harks back to Xavi's omnipresent calm. But what exactly will happen with Diego Costa? He's looked less like an actor pretending to be a homicidal gangster bent on starting a blood vendetta since he's not with Mourinho on a daily basis, but we all know that stack could blow at any time. Think Tuco Salamanca or that weird Chaz guy from "Boardwalk Empire." He could draw a red card from the opposition, or pick one up himself out of thin air. Who knows. When on, he strikes fear into any centerback combination--brutal in the air, able to seal his man off, with good speed and a cool finisher. He doesn't present the mobility that Spain has liked from its #9 in the past, so we'll see how it plays out, but he's looked far more in the flow than he did in 2016.
Finally, Real's youngsters Isco and Marco Asensio seem slated to play big roles, and I'm curious to see how they stack up. Isco is tricky and shows up in a lot of good places, with excellent technique. Iago Aspas? Go figure. In the old Spain, one could see them slotting right in, but I don't know that Spain's back end of midfield will dominate possession as they have in the past.
A number of pundits think this team could do it; they have a theoretically easy path to the semis, and if Costa and De Gea come up big--which they certainly can--maybe this team has what it takes. The 6-1 thrashing of Argentina is suggestive. But I don't see them overcoming the other big boys (Germany, Brazil, and France). Whoever takes them down will be performing at a very high level. Or maybe a man up.