A champion that lacks presence

Spain enters the 2014 FIFA World Cup with expectations somewhat reduced. British bookmakers see La Furia Roja as the fourth favourite to win the tournament, behind Brazil, Argentina and Germany. The halo, it seems, has dimmed. It is an unusual place to be in for a team that is the defending champion, is ranked number one in the world by FIFA, has won the previous two European championships, and has lost only three competitive matches in the last six years under its existing coach.

Yet, it is not altogether confusing. The first hint of vulnerability came in the 2013 Confederations Cup, when Spain was steamrollered by Brazil in the final. It is not often that a side comes up against the host nation in the final of a tournament; nothing can prepare players for that experience and it is evident Spain was overawed. A packed Maracana made its force felt (the collective singing of the Brazilian national anthem that evening, available on YouTube, is something to behold) and Spain crumbled.

Crucially, Xabi Alonso was absent that day and Spain clearly has no replacement for him. “Brazil played in that great atmosphere surrounding them at home. We just couldn’t find the right answers, especially physically. We were inferior,” the coach Vicente del Bosque admitted recently.

But with a taste of the conditions, the side is perhaps better equipped than many people imagine. “We got to know what will await us,” del Bosque said. “It is a positive experience. It happened to us in South Africa as well.”

The other concern has been the form of Xavi Hernandez. The midfielder, arguably Spain’s greatest ever player, is 34 years old and physically not what he once was. It is alarmist, though, to suggest that he cannot hold his own.

But del Bosque has a wealth of talent at his disposal and, although it might need time, he will find ways to succeed. In his final 23-man squad, the 63-year-old retained Fernando Torres and Juan Mata, but left out Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas, players he felt were a risk. The exclusion of Navas, in particular, is a bit of a surprise, considering the role he has played in previous winning campaigns and the option of pace he offers.

The immediate task, though, will be to advance out of a group including the Netherlands, Chile and Australia. The Dutch side, Spain’s opponent in its last World Cup match — the bruising 2010 final in Johannesburg — will be the first team it faces this time. “It is fate that we play them again in our first match,” del Bosque felt. Louis van Gaal’s side is different from that of four years ago, both in approach and personnel. It will not be a simple game.

Chile, being from South America, holds an advantage that must not be discounted. The likes of Mauricio Isla, Alexis Sanchez, and Arturo Vidal will ensure Chile is a difficult unit to beat.

What will be interesting to see is how much del Bosque is willing to tinker with Spain’s system of play. An injury cloud hangs over the Brazilian-born Diego Costa but once he is fit to play, his pace, power and directness will offer Spain a different dimension. Cesc Fabregas, who played as a false nine to great success last time around, might not be required to reprise that role. Koke has enjoyed a great season of football and could be effective off the bench.

There will be concern, though, over the physical state of some of the players. The Liga title race went down to the last weekend, while Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid featured in the UEFA Champions League final. Costa appears to have paid the price for Atletico’s sustained, high-tempo style of play; fatigue will definitely be an issue.

But no matter what, there will be no ruling Spain out. The victory of 2010, the country’s first ever World Cup, had made people a lot more optimistic, del Bosque felt. “Let’s see,” he said, “if we can confirm that optimism.”