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World Cup preview: Spain

Ahead of this summer's World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole previews the chances of 2010 champions Spain as they look to bounce back from a group-stage exit four years ago.

Spain will go into this summer's World Cup hoping to banish the demons of Brazil 2014, when they were dumped out in the group stages as defending champions.

The current crop for La Roja may not be as heavily-fancied as the all-conquering team of 2008-2012, when they won three consecutive major tournaments, but they will still travel to Russia among the favourites to go all the way.

Spain's squad lines up for their official 2018 World Cup photoshoot© Reuters

However, a remarkable turn of events of the eve of the tournament may have affected their chances, with manager Julen Lopetegui being sacked just two days before their opening match and being replaced at the helm by Fernando Hierro.

Here, Sports Mole takes a look at Spain's chances of restoring their glory days in Russia.


GROUP

Group B is the only one which sees two teams considered among the tournament favourites drawn alongside each other, with Spain coming up against Iberian rivals Portugal - the reigning European champions.

World Cup Group B

On paper it does not look like being the most difficult group to qualify from, but the opening match between Portugal and Spain in Sochi could ultimately decide who finishes in top spot and goes on to have an easier passage through the knockout stages.

The 2010 champions will not overlook a Morocco team that conceded just once throughout qualifying and an Iran side that went through their qualifying campaign unbeaten, but it could be that group opener which has the biggest impact on their tournament.

SPAIN FIXTURES

June 15: Portugal vs. Spain (7pm, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi)
June 20: Iran vs. Spain (7pm, Kazan Arena, Kazan)
June 25: Spain vs. Morocco (7pm, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Spain will arrive in Russia as one of only four teams to have gone through the European qualifying section without losing a game, alongside Germany, Belgium and England.

La Roja were drawn against fellow heavyweights Italy in their qualifying section, and a 1-1 draw with the Azzurri on matchday two kept things level pegging until the two sides met again in September 2017.

Spain's players celebrate qualifying for the 2018 World Cup with victory over Albania in October 2017© Reuters

With just one automatic qualifying spot available it looked as though the winners would be almost certain of a place at the World Cup, and two goals from Isco followed by an Alvaro Morata strike ensured that Spain would come out on top at the Bernabeu.

Italy, of course, failed to qualify at all in the end, whereas Spain went through having dropped just two points from their 10 matches, scoring 36 goals including 8-0 wins home and away against minnows Liechtenstein.

No team conceded fewer goals than Spain's three in qualifying either, while only Germany and Belgium found the back of the net more often than Lopetegui's side.


RECENT FORM

Spain's most eye-catching pre-World Cup result came in March when they thrashed Argentina 6-1 in Madrid, with Isco helping himself to a hat-trick at the Wanda Metropolitano.

It was a result that came off the back of a 1-1 draw with world champions Germany in Dusseldorf, although their more recent results have not been quite as impressive.

Spain's Alvaro Odriozola celebrates scoring their first goal with teammates as Switzerland's Valon Behrami reacts© Reuters

A rare David de Gea error saw Switzerland come away with a 1-1 draw in Villarreal earlier this month, and it took an 84th-minute Iago Aspas goal to overcome Tunisia in Krasnodar in their final warm-up game.

Spain also only managed a 3-3 draw with this summer's host nation in their other recent trip to Russia, although they will arrive at the tournament on a 20-match unbeaten streak stretching back to their exit from Euro 2016.

La Roja were unbeaten under former manager Lopetegui, then, winning 14 and drawing six of their outings during his time at the helm, and it is now down to Hierro to harness that momentum going into the tournament.


SQUAD

Spain World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: Pepe Reina (Napoli), David de Gea (Manchester United), Kepa Arrizabalaga (Athletic Bilbao).

Defenders: Nacho Fernandez, Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal (all Real Madrid), Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba (both Barcelona), Alvaro Odriozola (Real Sociedad), Nacho Monreal (Arsenal), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea).

Midfielders: Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets (both Barcelona), Saul Niguez, Koke (both Atletico Madrid), Isco, Marco Asensio (both Real Madrid), Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich), David Silva (Manchester City).

Forwards: Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo), Rodrigo (Valencia), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), Lucas Vazquez (Real Madrid).


STAR PLAYER - Sergio Ramos

Sergio Ramos in action for Spain on September 2, 2017© Reuters

Spain arguably boast the strongest group of players in a defensive sense, shipping an unrivalled three goals in UEFA qualifying, and also hold claim to having the world's finest goalkeeper in David de Gea.

Further forward La Roja are not too bad either, with the likes of Isco, Marco Asensio, Iago Aspas, Diego Costa and David Silva, among others, battling it out for three of the starting spots in the frontline should they go with a 4-3-3.

Every great team needs a great captain, though, and Sergio Ramos - coming off the back of another European-winning campaign with Real Madrid - ticks every box possible when it comes to being a standout skipper.

The 32-year-old may not be universally loved, but you cannot argue against his list of major honours for club and country, including two European Championships and one World Cup for Spain.

Ramos is fast closing in on Iker Casillas's all-time appearance record for the one-time world champions, and alongside Gerard Pique it is easy to see why so many are expecting this defensively-resolute Spanish side to go all the way once again in Russia.


MANAGER - Fernando Hierro

Fernando Hierro at the World Cup European playoff draw on December 1, 2018© Reuters

The drama surrounding Spain's managerial situation has dominated the immediate buildup to the tournament, with the nation's football association taking the unprecedented decision to part with unbeaten boss Lopetegui just one day before the tournament gets underway.

Lopetegui's decision to take over as Real Madrid boss after the World Cup without informing the RFEF resulted in his shock dismissal, which ranks among the very biggest World Cup twists.

Hierro - who was previously Spain's sporting director - has been drafted in as his replacement, and it is a big ask for the 50-year-old considering the sum of his managerial experience prior to this summer came with a season at Segunda Division side Oviedo from 2013-14.

The former centre-back has plenty of international knowhow from his playing days, though, making 89 appearances for Spain and travelling to six major tournaments, including four World Cups.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: Winners (2010)

Spain celebrate winning the 2010 World Cup© Reuters

For so long considered underachievers on the world stage, Spain finally lifted the famous golden trophy for the first time eight years ago courtesy of Andres Iniesta's memorable extra-time winner against the Netherlands in the final.

That team - widely regarded as one of the best national teams in history - barely changed in the following four years, but they suffered a humbling group-stage exit with a game to spare in Brazil, being beaten 5-1 by the Netherlands and 2-0 by Chile in their opening two matches.

It was the first time since 1998 that Spain had failed to reach the knockout rounds, although prior to 2010 they had only made it beyond the quarter-finals on one previous occasion - a fourth-place finish in Brazil 1950.

La Roja are now mainstays of the competition, though, having qualified for each of the last 11 editions of the tournament stretching back to 1974.

In all, Spain have played 59 World Cup matches down the years, winning 29 of those with 12 draws and 18 defeats.


PREDICTION

Spain's passage through the competition could be made a little more difficult due to the presence of Portugal in their group, but we're backing the 2010 champions to finish top of Group B and then beat the Group A runners-up in the last 16.

Argentina are then the most likely opponents in the quarter-finals and, while Lionel Messi and co will put up a much better fight than they did in the March meeting between the two sides, Spain will still be favourites to progress from that one, even after their late managerial upheaval.

A semi-final showdown with Germany could await Spain if they get that far, but we're backing the defending champions to just about come out on top in a clash between arguably the two best squads in Russia.

VERDICT: Semi-finals

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How far will Spain go at this summer's World Cup?

Group Stages
Last 16
Quarter-finals
Semi-finals
Runners-up
Winners
Group Stages
16.7%
Last 16
0.0%
Quarter-finals
16.7%
Semi-finals
16.7%
Runners-up
16.7%
Winners
33.3%
David de Gea in action for Manchester United in the FA Cup on April 21, 2018
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