A stress test for Spain
© AFP

The reigning world champions return to competitive action this weekend with the twin objectives of advancing their qualification bid for UEFA EURO 2012 and rediscovering their top form. Testing the resolve of the Group I leaders, however, will be first Czech Republic, who travel to Granada this Friday, then Lithuania, who welcome La Roja next Tuesday.

“The players’ performance in our official games has been beyond reproach, although we have suffered a couple of blemishes in friendlies. There were a lot of factors behind the defeat to Argentina, such as fatigue and the long trip involved, while against Portugal we were just too casual,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque told FIFA.com. “Those results were just a blot on an otherwise good run. That said, we’ll learn from those experiences to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

These games come during an intense period in national and international competitions. That said, the expectation is for us to continue along the road we’ve been going.
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque


Echoing the coach’s sentiment was La Roja defender Sergio Ramos. “It’s normal for other teams to give everything when facing the champions. Moreover, on that occasion, we suffered a physical and mental slump on the back of a very long year. Hopefully we can confine our defeats to friendly games! I’m confident though that the team can maintain its good form in official outings. Spain have a well-defined philosophy and playing style, and we intend to stick to it,” he said.

Since returning victorious from the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Spain’s record has been decidedly modest. A 1-1 draw in Mexico was followed by painful 4-1 and 4-0 reverses in Argentina and Portugal respectively, before the rot was stopped with a laboured 1-0 win against Colombia. It should be stressed, however, that the aforementioned games were all friendlies. In their three EURO 2012 qualifiers last year, they took maximum points, prevailing 4-0 against Liechtenstein, 3-1 against Lithuania and 3-2 against Scotland.

Next up for Del Bosque and Co are Czech Republic, the team most likely to challenge them for top spot in the section. Currently second in the group, the eastern European side will arrive in Andalucia with a point to prove following a damaging 1-0 home defeat to Lithuania last time out. “We’re heading into two crucial games against very strong opponents. We’re going to have to play with a good attitude a lot of spirit if we don’t want to suffer badly,” warned the coach.

“These games come during an intense period in national and international competitions. That said, the expectation is for us to continue along the road we’ve been going,” added Del Bosque, whose squad contains a sizeable number of players still vying for top honours in La Liga and competing in the latter stages of the UEFA Champions and Europa Leagues.

“Naturally, this month’s qualifiers will be of vital importance. They could shape our path to Ukraine/Poland 2012, an event we aspire to qualify for without undue difficulty,” said the coach of the defending European champions.

Del Bosque’s unruffled nature is evident in the manner in which he has calmly set about dealing with the aforementioned friendly setbacks. Eschewing any grand gestures, he has maintained the same nucleus of players that swept all before them in Africa and, apart from squad modifications forced on him through injuries, there is little sign that this will change. “We’re not currently in the process of team-building,” he told FIFA.com, before clarifying that while “Spain have a stable squad, we’re not forgetting the youngsters, who we could turn to at any time”.

Going for goal

Perhaps more than anything else, fans of La Selección have missed their team’s ruthlessness in front of goal. Though still enjoying their customary possession, the team have failed to translate this into goals, a situation attributed to, among other things, the dip in form of Fernando Torres and bad luck on the part of David Villa. Fortunately for Spain, Fernando Llorente and David Silva have been on hand to take up the slack.

While it may seem odd to suggest that Villa is struggling up front for Spain when he is this season’s top Spanish-born scorer in La Liga (17 goals), it is an assessment the striker himself shares. “Lately I’ve not been getting the rub of the green, but at least I’m getting goalscoring opportunities, which is almost as difficult as scoring. Whatever the case, I’m not overly concerned so long as the team keep winning,” said the Barcelona front-man.

The forthcoming international double-header will provide El Guaje with another opportunity to finally become Spain’s all-time leading scorer, a distinction he currently shares with Raul (the pair have both netted 44 times, though Villa in 71 games to the former’s 102). If he can manage to do so, then his recent travails, and those of Spain, may quickly be forgotten.