Hindustan Times ST (Jaipur)

Change of guard the Real deal at Enrique’s Spain

All eyes on new-look Spain in the absence of veterans like Ramos, Pique, Iniesta and David Silva

- Bhargab Sarmah

GUWAHATI: For a team that won two European Championsh­ips and a World Cup between 2008 and 2012, Spain’s slide has been sharp in the three major tournament­s since. A group stage exit at the 2014 World Cup was followed by eliminatio­n in the round of 16 at Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup.

It is often said that La Roja have been transition­ing over the past few years. But this is undoubtedl­y the first major tournament where the change of guard will be the most visible. For starters, this Spain squad has no Sergio Ramos, no Gerard Pique, no Andres Iniesta, no David Silva. The only survivor from the 2010 World Cup triumph is Sergio Busquets, the team’s captain for the tournament.

Only Jordi Alba and Busquets have more than 50 internatio­nal caps in this squad. A total of 16 players—two-thirds of the squad—have 14 or less caps. Newly-inducted Spaniard Aymeric Laporte got his debut on Friday in the goalless draw against Portugal in a friendly while back-up goalkeeper Robert Sanchez remains uncapped.

Head coach Luis Enrique, who won the treble with Barcelona in 2015, did not pick even a single Real Madrid player in the 24-member squad. Only three Barcelona players—busquets, Jordi Alba and Pedri— made the cut. The presence of Pep Guardiola, another treble-winning former Barca boss, can also be felt with four Man City players— the most from a single club— being selected by Enrique. The rising influence of English clubs is visible in that as many as 10 players from the Premier League have made it to the squad as from Spain’s own La Liga.

These aspects underline a deeply changing identity of the Spanish national team. For better or for worse, Luis Enrique’s Spain are set to begin a new era when they take on Sweden in the opener on June 14. “I need to make the players believe they can do it,” Enrique said, during a press conference on Tuesday. “I think this side is one of the favourites.”

After their opener, Spain will face Robert Lewandowsk­i’s Poland and end the group stage playing Slovakia. Winning the group will bring the possibilit­y of an easier round-of-16 clash on paper but even then Spain could face any of England, Croatia, Portugal, France or Germany in the quarter-finals.

The lack of experience in the squad is not necessaril­y a handicap. Some of the internatio­nally

Spain will bank on some of their exciting youngsters like Ferran Torres in Euro 2020.

inexperien­ced names are coming into the tournament on the back of impressive campaigns with their clubs. Villarreal forward Gerard Moreno, for instance, scored 30 goals for his club across all competitio­ns and helped them to a Europa League title. Teenage midfielder Pedri has played over 50 games for Barcelona and is one of the brightest young talents at this tournament. The relatively experience­d Alvaro Morata may not excite most of Spain’s supporters, as was evident by chants targeting him in Madrid on Friday, but with Ferran Torres and Adama Traore alongside Moreno, Spain aren’t short of options up front. There’s also Dani Olmo of Leipzig and Pablo

Sarabia of PSG --- the latter may finally find more game time under Enrique.

Busquets, Thiago Alcantara, Koke form an experience­d core in midfield, which also has Manchester City’s Rodri and Napoli’s Fabian Ruiz. Laporte, Pau Torres of Villarreal, Alba, Chelsea’s Champions League winning captain Cesar Azpilicuet­a, Valencia’s Jose Gaya, among others, are part of a strong backline that will have David de Gea in goal with Unai Simon and Sanchez as back-ups. “There’s room for improvemen­t, but all sides have things to improve before the tournament,” Gaya told reporters after Friday’s game. Despite Enrique’s insistence about Spain being among the favourites for the tournament, expectatio­ns back home may be a bit tempered this time.

Like with Germany in the 2006 World Cup that may not be a bad thing, especially if Spain reach the knockout stages. Against Portugal, Spain showed that, despite the old order changing, they can still control a game against big opposition.

Spain had more of the ball and created more chances against their Iberian neighbours. While Morata may not have had the best of outings, in terms of his finishing, the presence of an in-form target man in Moreno underlines the depth in the squad. Enrique’s side will also have the benefit of home comfort, with all their group stage games scheduled to be held in Seville. So, while one shouldn’t expect Spain to dominate the field in the way they did from 2008 to 2012, this is a team brimming with talent that will fancy its chances of going the distance.

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