Spain remain big Euro 2020 title contender- but are once again mired in uncertainty

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On the eve of the 2018 World Cup, Spain sacked their boss Julen Lopetegui as their tournament plans were thrown into chaos.

Lopetegui – unbeaten in his 20 matches at the helm – had agreed a deal to take over at Real Madrid following the conclusion of the tournament but had done so without the knowledge of the Spanish FA.

The dismissal came two days ahead of Spain’s opener against Portugal with technical director Fernando Hierro hastily appointed boss, overseeing a hugely underwhelming four matches and a Round of 16 elimination to hosts Russia.

Three years on, Spain once again enter a tournament with a deep sense of uncertainty, albeit one that is largely beyond their control.

Luis Enrique was first appointed as Spain boss in 2018
(Image: Denis Doyle)

On Sunday, Sergio Busquets tested positive for Covid-19 which not only made his participation in the tournament uncertain but ensured the entire Spain squad – who are yet to be vaccinated – have been forced into a period of self-isolation.

Spain’s final preparation match for Euro 2020 against Lithuania is now set to be contested by their Under-21 team, with the senior squad all returning negative PCR tests on Monday night.

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La Roja have been forced to instil emergency plans with six players brought into a group – which is entirely separate from the main senior squad – to train in case they are required to participate in the tournament.

Leeds United striker Rodrigo Moreno, West Ham midfielder Pablo Fornals, Carlos Soler of Valencia and Celta Vigo’s Brais Mendez were called upon, while Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and Villarreal’s veteran defender Raul Albiol are also on standby.

Sergio Busquets played in Spain's 0-0 draw with Portugal in Madrid last week, before testing positive over the weekend

It is not that these six players were deemed to be those closest to selection for the original squad to miss out, but that they were those who were still available with others having already jetted off on holidays and were no longer available.

The lack of clarity on player availability may have been driven by an ongoing global health emergency but it continues a period of constant rotation and an often-surprising selection process from boss Luis Enrique.

Since he first took the reins following on from Spain’s ill-fated World Cup three years ago, he has regularly made changes en mass to his starting line-ups and squad selections. This drew him both praise (giving all players an opportunity at international level) and criticism (a lack of continuity).

The headline absence from their squad is Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos – the most capped European footballer of all time, making 180 appearances for La Roja across 16 years.

Sergio Ramos was left out of Spain's Euro 2020 squad
(Image: NurPhoto/PA Images)

However, Ramos is now aged 35 and has been sidelined by consistent injury setbacks since January and it is other absentees that are more notable.

This is the first Spain squad ever for a major tournament not to include any Real Madrid players, with Ramos joining the in-form versatile defender Nacho Fernandez missing the cut, while Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vazquez both absent through injury, and Marco Asensio overlooked.

Barcelona teenage star Ansu Fati – who became Spain’s youngest ever starter in 84 years last September and was the youngest ever scorer for the side later that month – has not played since November due to a troubling injury.

How far can Spain go in Euro 2020? Comment below

Other La Liga stars were also surprisingly overlooked; there was no place for title-winning duo Mario Hermoso and Saul Niguez of Atletico Madrid, Sevilla’s forever-young captain Jesus Navas misses out after a sterling campaign while Real Betis midfield star Sergio Canales and, most of all, Celta Vigo’s inspirational striker Iago Aspas were also excluded.

Luis Enrique’s selection process left many asking ‘ok, but what’s the real squad?’ due to his tendency to overlook so many notable players, whilst selecting just 24 players instead of the allocated 26.

Iago Aspas of Celta Vigo was the most surprising exclusion from Spain's Euro 2020 squad
(Image: Octavio Passos)

Spain have plenty of extremely talented players but none who are indisputably classified as elite. France have Kylian Mbappe, Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Raphael Varane. England have their most talented squad in decades, and Portugal have a spine of Ruben Dias, Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo.

La Roja have been boosted by Aymeric Laporte declaring for the nation after not being capped at senior level by France, but the fact that neither he nor Eric Garcia (now at Barcelona) were first-choice defenders at Manchester City last season.

There is a dearth of world-class attacking talent in the Spanish ranks too – Alvaro Morata is generally regarded as the primary striker but is not regarded as a reliable scorer and can tend to be weighed down by expectations. Villarreal striker Gerard Moreno is the most obvious alternative but the 29-year-old has only ever been capped 11 times at international level too.

There is a great deal of excitement over the potential of Man City’s Ferran Torres, 21, and Barcelona’s teenage midfield star Pedri, although this tournament may come slightly too early for them to really make this stage their own.

There is huge uncertainty in the goalkeeping department; Manchester United ’s David De Gea and Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Unai Simon have both been error-prone this season with neither being assured of a starting place, allowing the possibility of Brighton ’s Robert Sanchez to make a surprise start.

The one true defensive star is Villarreal’s Pau Torres – strongly linked with a move to England – with the versatile Cesar Azpiliceuta likely to be involved on the right side of defence with a battle between Barcelona’s Jordi Alba (who, aged 32, is past his peak) and Valencia’s Jose Luis Gaya for the role on the left.

Liverpool's Thiago Alcantara remains a key player for Spain
(Image: 2020 Quality Sport Images)

Midfield is – somewhat expectedly for Spain – the area with the greatest strength in depth, with Liverpool ’s Thiago Alcantara and Man City’s Rodri both big contenders to start although Napoli’s Fabian Ruiz may now be ready to become a household name on a European stage.

Atletico Madrid’s Marcos Llorente may instead be deployed in a wing-back role – a position which may also go some way to explaining the inclusion of out-of-favour Paris Saint-Germain player Pablo Sarabia and Adama Traore of Wolves, who had a hit-and-miss campaign.

Spain’s unpredictability is both their strength and their weakness: they are the team lacking in continuity more than any other, yet they are also the trickiest to tactically set up against.

Man City’s contingent of players are likely to play a defining role: Laporte will see this as an opportunity to relaunch his career, Rodri is likely to play the crucial ‘pivot’ role at the base of midfield and, perhaps most interestingly of all, Torres – who scored 13 goals in just 24 starts this season – is an outside contender to be the tournament’s top scorer.

This is a side who beat Germany 6-0 in November – making it nine successive home victories in which they had scored 33 goals and conceded just once. Yet this is also a team who have won just once in their last eight matches away from Spain – a last-minute winner against 10-man Georgia. They are a side who vary from brilliance and cohesion in one game to sluggishness and off-pace in the next.

The absence of predictability makes this Spanish team incredibly interesting and a potential tournament victor, but they are a long way from the team who dominated international football between 2008 and 2012.

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