Reigning champions Spain’s qualifying campaign provided more than a glimpse of how it could unravel for them in Brazil. Two consecutive 1-1 draws, at home to France and Finland, showed how Spain could stutter but then they won four successive games to seal a spot in the finals.
Beginning in 2008 when Fernando Torres ensured Spain would be underachievers no more, La Roja have won everything in international football. The way they toyed with Italy in the final of the 2012 Euro, Spain, it seemed, would take Brazil by storm.
The story has since panned out differently. Spain are still on everybody’s list of favourites but the way Brazil tore into them in the final of the Confederations Cup last year raised more questions than it answered. It was one of only three defeats under coach Vicente del Bosque in competitive games since he took over nearly six years ago.
Spain will need something special if they are to become the first Europeans to win the World Cup in the Americas. Del Bosque will have learned from the reverse. The former Real Madrid coach has only had to tinker with his team since he took over from the late Luis Aragones after the Euro 2008 triumph but has begun recently to give more playing time to some of Spain’s promising youngsters. He has named uncapped Dani Carvajal of Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao’s Ander Iturraspe and Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta in the provisional squad.
While he may be reluctant to experiment too much in Brazil and risk upsetting the balance of a side stuffed with proven champions, del Bosque will have recourse to players capable of coming off the bench and changing a game like the creative midfield pair of Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich) and Koke Resurreccion (Atletico Madrid).
Perhaps his most significant move was the controversial decision late last year to call Brazil-born forward Diego Costa into the squad, which provoked outrage in Costa’s native country.
Spain scored just eight times in seven games at the 2010 World Cup and Costa, who made his debut in a 1-0 friendly win against Italy in March, could provide the cutting edge they sometimes lack up front.
The 25-year-old has scored a hatful of goals for Atletico Madrid in La Liga and the Champions League this season, and his combative playing style, strength in the air and prowess shooting with either foot strike fear into any defence. But Costa is also a feisty character and it will have to be seen how he blends into the squad.
In Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Juan Mata, Spain have some of the best passers in the game, and del Bosque will be counting on Costa making the intelligent runs into space that have been so devastating at club level.
Another tactic del Bosque has often used to excellent effect, particularly at Euro 2012, is playing without a traditional centre forward, with Fabregas in a roving attacking role as a so-called “false nine”. It was Fabregas’s assist from which Andres Iniesta scored the matchwiner in the 2010 final.
At the back Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique have formed a solid partnership in the middle. And del Bosque has stuck with his captain Iker Casillas in goal despite him losing his first-team place at Real Madrid.
Clubbed with Holland and Chile, Spain will need to hit the ground running. They did it once, losing 0-2 to the USA in the Confederation Cup in 2009 and the World Cup opener in 2010. If they do it again, Spain will be the first team to retain the World Cup since Brazil in 1958 and ’62.