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World Cup preview: Spain poised to retake the throne after brief blip

Normal service has resumed in Spain.

A winner of three consecutive major international tournaments between 2008 and 2012 – Spain’s golden generation brushed aside the competition during a four-year spell of tiki-taka-inspired dominance – the Iberian nation suffered a pair of humiliating setbacks in 2014 and 2016.

But now that group stage exit in Brazil, highlighted by the infamous 5-1 beatdown at the hands of the Netherlands, and the surprising defeat to a vastly inferior Italy side in the round of 16 at the European Championship seem distant memories.

Spain’s back, and is once again a serious contender to capture the World Cup.

Group stage schedule

Date Opponent Time
June 15 Portugal 2:00 p.m. ET
June 20 Iran 2:00 p.m. ET
June 25 Morocco 2:00 p.m. ET

Projected starting XI

Bench boss Julen Lopetegui could field a plethora of lineups, in various tactical setups, that would each give La Roja a chance to hoist football’s greatest prize – you need only to look at some of the noteworthy talent left off the squad altogether to see the wealth of options at the manager’s disposal. But he’s likely to opt for a tried-and-tested system that will look (at least on paper) like a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, with the two “wingers” each given freedom to tuck inside, sit in the hole, and link up with the midfielders to help facilitate Spain’s vaunted pass-and-move, possession-based game.

Many areas of the squad depend heavily on the influence of Barcelona and Real Madrid, and the width will be provided by full-backs Jordi Alba and Dani Carvajal; the latter is expected to be fit after a hamstring injury in the Champions League final saw him leave the pitch in tears.

The likes of Marco Asensio, Koke, and Cesar Azpilicueta, among others, give the Spaniards some of the best bench options in the competition, too.

Related: Full squad lists for each nation

Manager: Julen Lopetegui

The 51-year-old Lopetegui didn’t exactly inherit scraps when he replaced Vicente del Bosque on the touchline following Spain’s meek Euro 2016 exit, but it certainly looked as though he was taking over a side whose cycle as a dominant force was over.

Not quite, as it turns out.

Though Spain’s approach – dominate the ball and pass the opposition to death – has remained largely consistent under his tutelage, Lopetegui has reinvigorated the squad since taking over. By blending some of the world’s premier young talent with members of the old guard who were instrumental in scooping up three major tournament wins in succession, the former Porto tactician has La Roja right back in the mix as one of the World Cup favourites.

Key player: Isco

Much of the attention over the next month will go to living legend Andres Iniesta, and with good reason: After scoring the goal that gave Spain its maiden World Cup triumph in 2010, the newly minted Vissel Kobe recruit will look to craft another iconic moment in what is almost definitely his final foray with the national team. But while The Don attracts the eyeballs, he’s no longer the pulse of the team. That distinction belongs to Real Madrid’s Isco, whose ability to pull the strings from his attacking midfield position has made him the obvious heir apparent to his Barcelona counterpart.

His silky dribbling skills, incisive and accurate passing, and ability to pop up anywhere on the pitch and orchestrate things make him a nightmare to game plan for and defend. His humiliation of Marco Verratti and Italy’s hapless midfield in September – when he scored twice in a 3-0 win – was one of the standout performances of the qualifying stage for this tournament, and there’s no reason he can’t replicate that showing in Russia.

Breakout star: Iago Aspas

Sure, a 30-year-old striker doesn’t quite fit the mold of your prototypical “breakout star,” but when the younger, more traditional contenders for this title are already household names playing at massive clubs, like Asensio (22) and Saul Niguez (23), it forces you to think outside the box.

Enter Iago Aspas. Coming off a season in which he finished fourth in La Liga scoring with 22 tallies – bettered only by guys named Messi, Ronaldo, and Suarez – this tournament is the Celta Vigo star’s best opportunity to open the eyes of anybody who dismissed his talents after his fruitless one-year stint with Liverpool in 2013-14.

Lopetegui has flirted with using a false nine at times – the side’s collection of diminutive, interchangeable attackers lends itself well to that approach – but he seems set to play a recognized centre-forward in Russia. The truculence of Diego Costa offers an important alternative approach should Spain find the need to use a battering ram instead of a rapier when trying to break down the packed backline of lesser opponents, but while the Atletico striker is likely to get the nod out of the gate, his suitability to Spain’s fluid passing system has been in question since his decision to switch allegiances from Brazil. With Alvaro Morata surprisingly left at home, a slow start – or injury – for Costa would open the door for Aspas to jump in and assume the coveted role of chief scoring threat on a team that creates chances for fun.

Fans should be happy if …

This one’s easy. Both the stunning 2014 meltdown in Brazil and the limp 2016 exit in France are in the rearview mirror; Spain, buoyed by injecting the nation’s next wave of young stars into the squad, heads to the World Cup at its free-flowing, imperious best. As one of the favourites in Russia, Spanish supporters expect nothing less than for Lopetegui and Co. to return to the Iberian peninsula with the World Cup Trophy in hand.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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