There are two ways to look at Spain heading into the 2014 World Cup: as one of the most decorated sides in the history of international football, or as an aging side playing a tiki-taka system that has been unraveled by bigger and more athletic opponents.
The latter viewpoint held up in the 2013 Confederations Cup, when Brazil manhandled Spain in the final, 3-0.
Still, underestimate the Spaniards at your own risk. Few, if any, international teams can draw from the amount of talent at the disposal of Spanish manager Vicente del Bosque. Their starting 23 is a treasure trove of skill, and Seleccion Espanola recently tweeted out the final 23-man roster:
OFFICIAL | These are the 23 players who will represent us in a DREAM to conquer the second WORLD CUP! pic.twitter.com/nLWIKMCGDD— Selección Española (@SeFutbol) May 31, 2014
And while there are a number of obvious starters for the country, they head into this World Cup with more than a few pressing questions.
Let's project how they will answer them.
Here is the 23-man roster:
|GK||Iker Casillas||Real Madrid|
|GK||David De Gea||Manchester United|
|D||Sergio Ramos||Real Madrid|
|D||Javi Martinez||Bayern Munich|
|MF||Xabi Alonso||Real Madrid|
|MF||Juan Mata||Manchester United|
|MF||David Silva||Manchester City|
|F||Diego Costa||Atletico Madrid|
|F||David Villa||Atletico Madrid|
And here are the projections for the starting lineup:
We'll start with the players who didn't make the final 23.
Not surprisingly, neither Alvaro Negredo or Fernando Llorente were chosen for the final 23, both a vote of confidence for Diego Costa's chances at starting and another indication that Del Bosque simply trusts Fernando Torres and David Villa.
Jesus Navas was a bit of a surprise exclusion, as he is one of the true pure wingers Del Bosque had at his disposal. His pace and tendency to keep his width certainly would have provided the Spanish side with a different style of play out wide. Daniel Carvajal's exclusion was also surprising, though Cesar Azpilicueta's ability to play on either side at full-back probably contributed to that.
Less surprising exclusions include midfielders Thiago Alcantara and Ander Iturraspe and defender Alberto Moreno. All three seemed like long shots from the outset. Alcantara seems likely to be a huge part of the 2018 squad, however.
There are a few certainties for the starting 11. Iker Casillas will start in goal. Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos will pair at centre-back, while Jordi Alba will surely play at left-back. Andres Iniesta will definitely start in the midfield.
After that, there are several very strong probabilities. Sergio Busquets seems likely to reprise his holding role in the midfield, while Xavi will likely pair with Iniesta in front of him. On the wings, Pedro and Cesc Fabregas seem like the probable starters.
After that, things get interesting, starting at right-back. Juanfran and Azpilicueta seem neck-and-neck in this battle, as both have played excellent football this season for Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, respectively.
A few things seem to give Juanfran the slightest of advantages. For starters, though Azpilicueta started his career as a right back, he has spent this season playing on the left. And as Henry Chard of Football Espana notes, "Juanfran's attacking edge may give him a slight advantage over the Chelsea man."
That is the most spirited battle for a starting place. But no position will be scrutinized more heavily than striker.
If Costa is healthy enough to play, he'll surely earn the nod. After scoring 27 goals in 35 La Liga appearances for Atletico Madrid this season, he's the most in-form option Del Bosque has, and his size and physicality along with his clinical finishing would allow Spain to add another dimension to their tiki-taka system, as they could play crosses into the box for Costa.
For a team that can struggle to score goals, Costa's versatility would be a breath of fresh air.
But what happens to the Spaniards if Costa can't play? The normal chaos of figuring out the forward position, that's what.
The team could turn to Torres, the oft-disappointing striker from Chelsea. Villa could start up top. Or Fabregas could be moved centrally to play the false-nine role he's occupied in the past.
If that's the case, who will take his place on the wing? David Silva seems the likely choice, though Del Bosque could choose to play Santi Cazorla, who played out wide for Arsenal this year. Even Juan Mata is an option, though much like his time at Manchester United, it's hard to see where he naturally fits with the Spanish national team. Mata did weigh in on his inclusion following the announcement:
Talking about the forward position and the decisions he has to make at the position, Del Bosque told Marca, "I'm not going to just look at the goal tallies. They haven't been consistent. I'm going to take who I think is playing best and who can adapt best to our style of play."
The other major question for Spain will be where Xabi Alonso slots in. The Real Madrid man was excellent for Los Blancos this season, and would be a no-questions-asked starter in the midfield for most countries. But would Del Bosque dare start him and disrupt Barcelona's midfield triumvirate of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets?
It's possible but unlikely. Del Bosque's reasoning for sticking with the Barca trio would likely be pretty simple—why mess with a good thing?
In general, that's the feeling you get when you look over much of Spain's roster. This will probably be the last run for a group of players that won two European titles and a World Cup, but there is still plenty gas left in the tank for another long run in Brazil.
Del Bosque certainly has a wealth of riches to choose from. Ensuring he gets the most value out of the starting 11 will occupy his time from now until mid-June.