World Cup preview — The champions impress

Spain is the reigning World Cup and European Cup champion. Its string of successes — Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, and Euro 2013 — is unprecedented in the history of international soccer.

But Brazil roundly defeated Spain in Brazil last year. That result, coupled with other recent successes and the fact that the 2014 World Cup will be played in Brazil, means that the Brazilians are justifiably favored to win the competition this summer. The last odds I saw had them at 3-1.

Spain, meanwhile, are only fourth choice among the bookmakers at 7-1. Argentina, 9-2, and Germany, 5-1, are more fancied.

But the Spaniards showed they are still a force to be reckoned with earlier this month in a warm-up match against Italy in Madrid. The score was close 1-0, but Spain’s domination was nearly total. They outshot Italy 21-3 and had 70 percent of the possession.

In other words, it was a win characteristic of Spain’s remarkable six year run. The Spanish have dominated top opposition, but have trounced it only when opponents opened up the match, instead of parking the bus in front of goal. Italy opened things up in the Euro 2012 final and were trounced; this time they parked the bus.

Spain dominated the game with the same brilliant one-touch short passing that has become the team’s trademark. Admittedly, the Italian lineup was made up almost entirely of players battling for a position in the World Cup squad, few of whom will likely make the starting lineup. But there wasn’t a mug among them. Given the quality and depth of Italian football, the team Spain defeated so easily would probably rate around the midpoint of the World Cup field of 32.

Spain’s starting 11 was much closer to its likely World Cup selection. Since some of the skepticism about Spain’s prospects may stem from a sense that the team is aging and jaded, it’s worth a look at the age of the starting lineup:

G
Iker Casillas (32)

D
César Azpilicueta (24)
Jordi Alba (25)
Sergio Ramos (27)
Javi Martinez (25)

M
Sergio Busquets (25)
Thiago Alcantara (22)
Cesc Fabregas (26)
Andres Iniesta (29)

F
Pedro (26)
Diego Costa (25)

Some players who remain important are pushing 30 — e.g., Jesus Navas, David Silva, Santi Cazorla — and a few are on the wrong side of it — e.g., Xavi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez. However, age doesn’t appear to be a major problem.

Forward Diego Costa may hold the key to Spain’s World Cup fortunes. In the early days of Spain’s dynasty, Fernando Torres and David Villa provided plenty of fire power. But for various reasons, both went off the boil and Spain has had no adequate replacement.

Things reached the point that at Euro 2012, Spain often used a 4-6 formation, with no true center forward. This approach seems unlikely to work in Brazil.

Fortunately, Costa, who as a dual citizen could have played for Brazil, chose Spain. He has scored for fun in Spain’s great domestic league — a remarkable 25 goals in 30 matches this season and 20 in 39 matches the previous two seasons.

If Costa can produce anything approaching his domestic form this summer, Spain shouldn’t have trouble finding the net even against teams that park the bus. However, he is unproven at the international level; the aforementioned match against Italy was in debut for Spain. Pedro, who scored Spain’s goal, seemed the more dangerous of the two on the day.

Will Spain win the World Cup this summer? Probably not. Are they undervalued compared to Argentina and Germany? Probably so.

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