Lopetegui off to promising start with Spain's national team

The Spain coach, unbeaten since taking over Del Bosque’s job in July, has quickly put the national team back on track as a top European contender.

Spain's coach Julen Lopetegui gestures during the international friendly soccer match between France and Spain at the Stade de France in Paris.   -  AP

Julen Lopetegui is proving to be a worthy replacement for Vicente del Bosque.

The Spain coach, unbeaten since taking over Del Bosque’s job in July, has quickly put the national team back on track as a top European contender.

Spain has won six of its eight games under Lopetegui, the latest a convincing 2-0 victory over France on Tuesday in Saint-Denis in a friendly.

“France has had one of the best teams in the last few years, so this victory, at their stadium, has more value,” the 50-year-old Lopetegui said. “France will remain a great rival in the upcoming years.”

Lopetegui’s stint with Spain began with a 2-0 win in a friendly at Belgium not long after the team’s disappointing campaign under Del Bosque in the 2016 European Championship, when it was eliminated by Italy in the round of 16.

Del Bosque, who had also failed to succeed at the 2014 World Cup, retired after Euro 2016 and the Spanish federation decided to take a chance on Lopetegui, who had been without a job since being fired from FC Porto earlier in the year. It had been Lopetegui’s only head coaching job with a major club, but he was well-regarded by the federation after doing well with Spain’s youth squads.

Among the other good results for Spain since Lopetegui took over were draws at Italy in European qualifying and at England in a friendly at Wembley Stadium.

Spain leads the difficult Group G of European World Cup qualifying with 13 points from five matches. Italy has the same number of points but Spain is ahead on goal difference. The decisive match between the teams will be in September in Spain. Only the group winner automatically qualifies for the World Cup, with the second-place team having to face a playoff.

A former goalkeeper who was a member of the national team in the 1994 World Cup, Lopetegui has maintained an offensive-minded squad as a coach.

Spain has outscored its opponents 23-4 in the eight matches with Lopetegui, including an 8-0 rout of Lichtenstein in European qualifying.

“We are playing with confidence under Lopetegui,” said midfielder Thiago Alcantara, who was coached by Lopetegui when Spain won the Under-21 European Championship in 2013.

Lopetegui was unbeaten in 20 games as coach of Spain’s under-21 squad.

Lopetegui has added many of Spain’s youngsters to the main squad, mixing them with veteran stars such as Andres Iniesta in an attempt to gradually revamp the national team after it won two European Championships and a World Cup under Del Bosque and former coach Luis Aragones.

It’s his time to try to succeed, and so far he has shown he has the potential to do it.

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