Sunday 14 November 2021, 23:00

All smiles for Spain after bumpy campaign

  • Spain beat Sweden on Sunday to qualify for Qatar 2022

  • As was the case in 1993, they faced a make-or-break decider in Sevilla

  • Plenty of positives for Luis Enrique’s side but room for improvement too

Not for the first time, Seville was the setting on Sunday evening for Spain’s qualification for a FIFA World Cup™ as they saw off Sweden to book their place in Qatar. Twenty-eight years ago, in the qualifiers for USA 1994, the southern city played witness to another qualification-clinching Spanish victory over another Scandinavian side. The visitors on that occasion – on 17 November 1993 – were Denmark and it proved to be a very nervy night for the hosts, who were a man down for 80 minutes following the sending-off of goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta but still managed to squeeze out a 1-0 win to advance to the finals. Sunday’s meeting with Swedes proved to be less stressful. Though made to sweat at times, Spain were the better side and emerged victorious. Having played against the Danes on that distant November night, when he worked his magic down the flanks, Luis Enrique is now bringing his character and philosophy to bear in the Spain hot-seat. Though La Roja were below their best in both qualification campaigns, just as they did 28 years ago at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan, they got the job done in Seville and celebrated in style when it was all over. picks out the key factors in Spain’s qualification for their 16th World Cup.

Bumps in the road

Spain’s journey to Qatar began in underwhelming fashion. Held to a draw at home by Greece in March, they fell behind in Georgia in their next outing and needed a stoppage-time winner to secure the three points. Definitive proof that this campaign was harder than expected came when Luis Enrique’s side lost 2-1 in Sweden in early September. That setback proved a turning point, however, and was followed by four consecutive wins, a run that has sealed qualification for a team that now has the task of addressing its obvious flaws in the run-up to Qatar 2022. While Spain have no difficulty in controlling possession and dominating games, creating chances and taking them is a different matter altogether. Relatively settled in defence and midfield, La Roja have issues up front, where injuries have disrupted the coach’s plans. Alvaro Morata, Gerard Moreno, Ansu Fati, Mikel Oyarzabal and Ferran Torres have all missed games through injury, with the last four all sidelined for the November double-header along with Yeremi Pino, who won his first cap in the UEFA Nations League. Meanwhile, Dani Olmo, who did feature against Greece and Sweden, has only just recovered from injury. If Spain want to go far in Qatar, they will need their forwards to be fit and firing and to finally start taking the chances that come their way.

Causes for optimism

Aside from the World Cup qualifiers, Spain have also graced UEFA EURO 2020 and the UEFA Nations League Finals this year. In reaching the semi-finals in the first of those tournaments and the final in the second, they showed exactly what they were capable of. The reason for that seems clear. With their coach having consolidated his position in the dugout, Spain are more at ease with their possession-based game when coming up against big teams. They proved that point in the Nations League finals, looking far more assured against attack-minded sides that leave more space than they did against their opponents in the Qatar 2022 qualifiers, who were content to sit back and defend. Luis Enrique’s commitment to youth has meant opportunities for the likes of Ferran Torres, Pedri, Fati, Gavi, and Pino. With the exception of the Manchester City attacker, who is 21, they are all under 19. And all of them have become integral squad members, with Torres ending the qualification campaign as Spain’s leading scorer, with four goals from six games. Another of Luis Enrique’s achievements has been to find lasting solutions in the spine of the team, a cause for concern in the past. Athletic Bilbao keeper Unai Simon is now the undisputed first choice between the posts and one of the mainstays of the team. In central defence, Manchester City’s Aymeric Laporte got the nod for the EURO and is now one of the first names on the team-sheet, while captain Sergio Busquets has dispelled doubts about his position in the team by producing his best football on national duty. All three are key to the defensive set-up of a side that conceded just five goals in the qualifiers.

The stats

0 The number of home World Cup qualifiers that Spain have lost in their history.

4 The number of World Cups that Luis Enrique has now qualified for, having featured at USA 1994, France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002 as a player. Qatar 2022 will be his first as a coach.

12 The number of consecutive World Cups that Spain have now qualified for. The last one they missed was Germany 1974. 28 The number of players handed Spain debuts by Luis Enrique, the latest of them Raul De Tomas against Greece last Thursday. The coach has made clear that when it comes to selecting players, age and the clubs they play for will not influence his thinking. Anyone who is in form and worthy of a place will get the call.

What they said

“We’re heading to the World Cup with a young team and full of excitement, and I think we can be among the best. I’m very proud of the players, of everyone who’s taken part in the qualifiers. We finished the job off against Sweden after going through a lot of tough moments.” Luis Enrique after beating Sweden “I think we deserve it. I’ve had some hard times on this pitch. I’m delighted we’ve qualified. Spain should always be at the World Cup.” Alvaro Morata after scoring the winner against the Swedes