x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Confederations Cup: Tired and tested Spain start another campaign

Juan Mata and his Spanish teammates have had a grueling schedule the last few years and it continues at the Confederations Cup, Gary Meenaghan reports from Brazil.

Spain’s Juan Mata, left, is congratulated by teammates after scoring in a 2-0 win over Ireland at Yankee Stadium in New York on Tuesday. Adrees Latif / Reuters
Spain’s Juan Mata, left, is congratulated by teammates after scoring in a 2-0 win over Ireland at Yankee Stadium in New York on Tuesday. Adrees Latif / Reuters

Juan Mata has been involved in more than 175 games in all competitions since he made his World Cup debut for Spain against Honduras just three years ago. More than 70 of these games were played in the past 12 months.

At risk of over-analysing the Spaniard's phenomenal indestructibility, that breaks down to one game every six days. For three years straight.

Three straight years: No break, no extended holiday, no quiet football-free summers.

Even before replacing Fernando Torres on June 21, 2010 in Johannesburg, he had been part of Spain's Confederations Cup campaign the previous year.

In 2011, he played in the European Under 21 Championship. Twelve months later, he featured at Euro 2012 for the senior team. Oh, and three weeks after scoring in the final of that tournament, he was in London competing at the Olympic Games.

The last time Mata enjoyed a summer without being involved in a major football tournament, he had just celebrated his 20th birthday. He is now 25.

Today, he is likely to add to his remarkable record – which incidentally does not include the numerous friendlies he has played with Chelsea, most recently a pair of exhibition matches against Manchester City in the United States (he scored one and notched two assists).

Spain face Uruguay this evening in their opening match of the Confederations Cup. The game will be played in the Brazilian coastal city of Recife, but if Mata has a longing to relax on one of the many palm-lined beaches he hides it well – and not just because a tropical storm has pounded the city for the past two days.

In Spain's final warm-up match earlier this week in New York, the former Valencia winger came off the bench to score his side's second goal in a 2-0 win over Republic of Ireland.

Yet Mata, despite a prolonged portrayal, is not superhuman. Everybody has their limits and there exists a general presumption that Spain's sustained success will soon catch up with them.

The harbinger, so proclaim the doomsayers, was Barcelona's collapse in their Uefa Champions League semi-final with Bayern Munich that saw them eliminated 7-0 on aggregate.

Andres Iniesta and Xavi have long been the cogs with which Barcelona – and Spain – perform, yet against Munich they were outmuscled and outrun. In defence, Gerard Pique looked unsteady, while David Villa in attack continued fruitlessly to search for the scoring form that saw the Catalan club pay €40 million (Dh196m) for his services three years ago.

The squad's health has not been aided by the country's football federation, who decided to take their swashbuckling Spanish side across the globe for a series of lucrative exhibitions. The result was that while Germany, ranked No 2 behind Vincente del Bosque's side, remained in Europe and Argentina, ranked third in the world, stayed in South America, Spain were travelling to the likes of Puerto Rico and Qatar.

Del Bosque is under no illusions that his players are suffering from convoluted, congested domestic seasons. Spain's Primera Liga only wrapped up at the start of June.

The 62-year-old manager though hopes a combination of fresh faces, the omnipresent objective of securing further silverware and the dangling carrot of next summer's global showpiece will see them through.

For these reasons, Robert Soldado could prove an important figure this month. The Valencia striker, 28, is included in a major tournament squad for the first time as del Bosque continues his search for a forward that can offer him more tactically. Having scored against Ireland, Soldado is determined to show he is worth calling upon ahead of Villa and Torres.

"I work each day to be Spain's No 9 and be on the team," Soldado told reporters this week, sheltering from a north-east downpour that has flooded many of the city's shoddy, potholed roads. "For me, it's special since it will be my first championship playing for the national side. It's very motivating."

The Real Madrid academy graduate added the rain could work in Spain's favour against Uruguay as "with a little rain, the speed of the ball changes".

"It could be important because the tradition here in South America is to have the field dry with the ball moving more slowly. The rain could give us a hand."

A fast-paced 90 minutes apparently awaits the exhausted world champions as they start yet another summer chasing success. The Confederations Cup remains the only trophy missing from the Spanish cabinet.

The indefatigable Mata and his team of Spanish conquerors will be intent on changing that.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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