The Confederations Cup kicks off this Saturday and looks to be a very entertaining tournament, with a number of strong sides vying for the trophy. Brazil is the host country and has an exciting young team featuring new Barcelona signing Neymar, but Spain are still the favourites to win the only tournament that has eluded them during their magnificent run that began with Euro 2008.
Perhaps the biggest story for the Spain squad is the absence of Xabi Alonso, who was a vital part of Spain’s success at the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. Alonso has been dealing with a groin injury that could be one of the reasons for his poor form at the end of this season. The double pivot of Alonso and Sergio Busquets has been the core of manager Vicente Del Bosque’s strategy since he took over from Luis Aragonés, and it will be interesting to see how he adapts his squad without the Basque midfielder.
If Spain’s last two friendly matches are any indicator, Del Bosque will likely replace Alonso with a more attack-minded player like David Silva, Pedro, Cesc Fàbregas or Jesús Navas. This may lead to a bit more direct style, but La Roja will certainly miss Alonso’s ability to unlock a defense or switch the play with a pinpoint long pass. Look for Xavi Hernández to sit deeper and collect balls from the defense or from Busquets that Alonso would normally see.
The other question marks for Spain are in goal and at the forward spot. Iker Casillas is the team captain and was instrumental to the capture of the World Cup and the two Euro trophies, but he hasn’t played competitively since fracturing his hand at the end of January. His two backups are more than capable of taking on the starting role, and reports in Spain suggest Casillas’ place is far from assured. With the Real Madrid keeper out of action for so long, it may be Victor Valdes’ time to shine on the national stage.
Moving to the forwards, Spain has a number of options but no clear cut favourite to start up front. All time leading goalscorer David Villa has not been the same since breaking his leg in December 2011, Fernando Torres has been inconsistent, and Roberto Soldado had a fine year for Valencia but does not appear to have the full confidence of Del Bosque. It’s possible the Spanish technician will forego a striker altogether and go with wide forwards such as Pedro, Silva, or Navas and false 9 in Cesc Fàbregas. That strategy worked pretty well last summer, with Cesc scoring a number of goals en route to Spain’s second straight European Championship win.
A number of Spain’s players who have never been regular starters for la selección had standout seasons for their clubs this year. These include César Azpilicueta, Nacho Monreal, Javi Martínez, Santi Cazorla, Juan Mata, and Soldado. It will be interesting to see if any of these players get significant playing time, given Del Bosque’s tendency to stick with his favourites. Below, I’ve created two formations; first, who I think should start accounting for club form this season, and second, who I believe will start based on my knowledge of the Spanish national team.
This is what I personally would like to see, although I believe the chances of this being the starting XI on Sunday against Uruguay are zero. Starting at the back, I personally rate Casillas over Valdés even if he hasn’t played since January. Azpilicueta had a solid season with Chelsea, earning the starting right fullback spot, and deserves a chance to show what he’s got. Arbeloa has the position on lockdown for Spain, but he had a very inconsistent year and has never provided great service from the right even at his best. In the midfield, I think there’s no question that Javi Martínez had a better year than Sergio Busquets, but the Barcelona man is practically untouchable for Del Bosque. Cazorla and Mata tore up the Premier League and are in better form than Silva, Cesc, and Pedro. Finally, Soldado has been superior to Villa and Torres this year and scored a true center forward’s goal against Ireland on Tuesday.
Deserved or not, Busquets will get the nod over Javi Martínez, and truthfully you cannot go wrong with either. I still think Casillas gets the start because Del Bosque is a Madridista at heart and Casillas has given everything for Spain as captain over the years. The front three is the toughest to predict, and Del Bosque may opt for Jesús Navas over David Silva on the right. I put Cesc in at the false 9 because of the aforementioned lack of confidence in the strikers, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of Torres, Villa, or even Soldado up front. Pedro has performed well for Spain in World Cup qualifying and appears to be first choice at one of the forward positions.
Spain’s squad may be aging and perhaps on the decline a bit, but they still have more talent at every position than any other team in the Confederations Cup. It’s a guarantee they will control the possession in every game, but the question mark is scoring goals. Even at their best Spain have struggled for goals at times, so whoever Del Bosque opts for up front will be expected to deliver. If they do lose, I fully expect it to be a game where Spain dominates but simply cannot find the net. If they win, this team will truly have achieved everything at the international level.
Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Victor Valdés (Barcelona), Pepe Reina (Liverpool)
Defenders: Álvaro Arbeloa (Real Madrid), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Gerard Piqué (Barcelona), César Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Ignacio Monreal (Arsenal), Raúl Albiol (Real Madrid)
Midfielders: Javi Martínez (Bayern Munich), Xavi (Barcelona), Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Santi Cazorla (Arsenal), Cesc Fàbregas (Barcelona), Juan Mata (Chelsea)
Forwards: David Villa (Barcelona), David Silva (Manchester City), Roberto Soldado (Valencia), Pedro (Barcelona), Jesús Navas (Sevilla), Fernando Torres (Chelsea).