Spain shine on road to Russia
MADRID - Often overshadowed by off-field distractions, Spain's thrilling World Cup qualifying campaign has shown a side laced with rising stars and proven winners can rule the world again in Russia next year.
After a week in which players and coach Julien Lopetegui were grilled at every opportunity on the rising political tension sweeping across Spain caused by Catalonia's drive for independence, Lopetegui's men did their talking on the field by sweeping aside Albania on Friday night to guarantee their place at the World Cup.
A three-goal spurt in 11 first-half minutes took La Roja's tally in nine qualifying games to a mightily impressive 35 goals as a new generation of talent has injected the fresh blood needed after embarrassing early exits as defending champions at World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016.
The biggest cloud hanging over Spain's World Cup candidacy remains how destabilising the political process could be to the harmony of the group.
Gerard Pique was jeered in Alicante on Friday, as he routinely is on Spain duty, for his outspoken defence of Catalonia's right to self-determination, although he has never publicly backed independence. Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba are the other Catalan players who are key parts of Lopetegui's strongest side, but both avoid the political spotlight.
"Many things have happened since our arrival, but we have always tried to take the best decisions thinking about what is best for the team and our common objective ," said Lopetegui, who is now unbeaten in 13 games since replacing Vicente del Bosque after Euro 2016. "I think it is time to start focusing on positive news in football and in the country because there are very good things.
"It is like when you see a very good painting with a speck of dust and you focus on the speck of dust rather than the painting.