Lopetegui's Spain faces Portugal test

Xinhua
Julen Lopetegui is now faces his toughest challenge after two years in the role have brought subtle changes to the Spanish style of play.
Xinhua

Julen Lopetegui is undefeated since replacing Vicente del Bosque in the Spain hot-seat following the 2016 European Championship, but now faces his toughest challenge after two years in the role have brought subtle changes to the Spanish style of play.

Spain cruised to qualification in Russia, leaving Italy floundering in its wake on the way, while Lopetegui showed he is not necessarily a slave to the passing game, nicknamed ‘tiki-taka’ by fans and commentators.

It would be wrong to say he has brought about radical changes, but there are subtle changes to the style which evolved under Luis Aragones prior to Spain’s success at the 2008 Euro and was honed to perfection as Del Bosque led Spain to 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euro triumphs.

That style of dominating the ball in midfield looked stale in 2014, when poor pre-tournament preparation and the aging legs of Xavi Hernandez/Xabi Alonso allowed the Dutch and a high-energy Chile to leave Spain by the wayside in Brazil. The Spanish again looked in need of change after a disappointing quarterfinal exit saw them surrender their European crown in 2016.

Former Under-21 coach Lopetegui was the natural replacement for Del Bosque: a man destined to continue the Spanish style and also to develop it with players he had worked with as youngsters.

Diego Costa had looked like a square peg in a round hole at times with Spain under Del Bosque, but Lopetegui showed his faith in the Brazilian-born forward and in Alvaro Morata to lead the attack in qualifying.

The forwards allowed Spain to play their passing game, while also allowing them to hit more direct passes down the channels for Morata’s pace and Costa’s muscle to fix defenders at open spaces behind them.

Morata’s poor second half of the season in England saw him, perhaps unfortunately, miss out on a place in the last 23.

Saturday’s 1-0 win at home to Tunisia showed the Spanish can still over-elaborate their football, relying on control rather than penetration to wear their rivals down. It was not until Costa got into the game that they started to really threaten a well-organized Tunisia defense.

Costa’s entry midway through the second half followed those of Lucas Vazquez and Koke at halftime with Thiago Alcantara and Isco, as Lopetegui looked to add more bite to his side.

But Isco probably has more of a chance of starting against Portugal in Friday’s opener as Lopetegui no doubt remembers his hat-trick in the 6-1 thrashing of Argentina in March.

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