Julen Lopetegui has Spain back among the select few sides favored to contend for next year’s World Cup.
A year ago when Lopetegui replaced Vicente del Bosque as Spain’s coach, the team was clearly on the decline after its aging core was outhustled to early exits from the 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship.
But Lopetegui has Spain playing with renewed confidence after striking a balance between the remaining old guard that won the 2010 World Cup and two European Championships and the best talent of its next generation.
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Spain’s commanding 3-0 victory over Italy on Saturday put it in command of their qualifying group and increased its streak without a loss in World Cup qualifiers to 60 successive matches. Lopetegui is responsible for the last seven qualifiers, including six wins and a 1-1 draw at Italy last October.
Spain starts its run-in to locking up its spot in the 2018 World Cup on Tuesday when it visits Liechtenstein, a minnow which Spain thrashed 8-0 in Lopetegui’s competitive debut last September.
”We aren’t qualified for the World Cup. The three points in play tomorrow are vital,” Lopetegui said in Liechtenstein’s capital, Vaduz, on Monday.
Spain leads Group G with 19 points to Italy’s 16. Albania is third with 12. The group winner classifies directly for the tournament, while the runner-up must hope to go through a playoff.
Liechtenstein is last in the group with zero points.
The match at the tiny western European country offers Lopetegui a perfect opportunity to experiment with this squad. Liechtenstein will likely play with as many defenders in its box as possible, a formula that Spain has sometimes struggled to break down before.
Lopetegui won’t have available striker David Villa, whom he recalled after a three-year absence. Villa played the final two minutes of the Italy match, and then injured a leg muscle during practice on Sunday.
”We don’t know what changes we will make. It will depend on how the players are,” Lopetegui said. ”Football is unpredictable. We must be focused tomorrow on securing the win. These three points are just as important as those from Saturday (against Italy).”
Spain’s young stars shone against the Italians.
Real Madrid midfielder Francisco ”Isco” Alarcon struck two goals in a memorable performance to stagger Italy before substitute Alvaro Morata finished the visitors off with another goal. Joining this new talented bunch is Madrid youngster Marco Asensio.
Isco and Asensio played with veteran playmakers Andres Iniesta and David Silva as Spain dazzled Italy without a traditional striker, a ”false 9” lineup Lopetegui recovered from the best times of Spain under Del Bosque.
”Isco is playing better than last year, but the trust we place in him is because he has shown he deserves it,” Lopetegui told MARCA Radio on Sunday. ”His growth as a player goes beyond his talent. He is a different type of player from Andres Iniesta and we can use them together.”
Lopetegui, 51, is a former goalkeeper whose only coaching experience with a major club were two disappointing seasons with FC Porto. But his stints as the manager of Spain’s youth selections, in which he coached some of Spain’s current players, put him in position to succeed Del Bosque.
”I know Lopetegui from the under-21 team,” goalkeeper David de Gea said on Monday. ”He is a great coach and he prepares for matches very well. The team must be above all else, especially each individual. That’s what our coach emphasizes.”
In addition to its signature win over Italy, Lopetegui’s Spain has also notched away wins in friendlies at France and Belgium and draws in friendlies at England and at home against Colombia.
After Liechtenstein, Spain will have qualifiers against Albania and at Israel to close the group.