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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Spain face Germany and Italy in litmus test of World Cup credentials

Julen Lopetegui’s men were convincing in qualifying and are one of the pre-tournament favourties

Julen Lopetegui, fourth from right, oversees a training session ahead of Spain's friendly match against Italy on Friday. Juan Carlos Hidalgo / EPA
Julen Lopetegui, fourth from right, oversees a training session ahead of Spain's friendly match against Italy on Friday. Juan Carlos Hidalgo / EPA

Spain play two enticing friendlies during the international break, against Germany on Friday in Dusseldorf, then Argentina on Tuesday in the first international to be staged at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano.

Playing the reigning world champions, and the team they beat in the 2014 final, should be ideal preparation for a Spain side that are fourth favourites to win the competition behind Germany, Brazil and France.

Spain, who won the World Cup in 2010 and the European championships in 2008 and 2012, were a let down in the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European championships, the 5-1 hammering by Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands in the 2014 opener shattering their aura of invincibility - they didn’t get out of the group stage.

Defeat to Italy in the last 16 stage in France two years ago meant a second successive disappointment, but Spain recovered to finish clear of the Italians when paired with them for qualifiers ahead of Russia.

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Julen Lopetegui’s men looked convincing in qualifying, winning nine and drawing one of their 10 group games as they topped Group G ahead of Italy, Albania, Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein. Spain scored 36 goals and conceded only three. They have a solid spine, with David de Gea probably the best goalkeeper in the world, though Germany’s Ter Stegen or Manuel Neuer might dispute that.

De Gea is the only Manchester United player involved in the squad his weekend, with Juan Mata and Ander Herrera not selected given the overstock of talent in Spain’s midfield. Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas also misses out.

In Gerard Pique, Spain have an experienced defender still at the top of his game – though he’s usually jeered by some Spain fans for his perceived thoughts on Catalan independence and his chiding of Real Madrid. He actually gets on well with his central defensive partner, Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos, another serial winner who rises to the biggest games.

In front, Pique’s Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets remains the best on the planet in his position as a defensive midfielder. Andres Iniesta, who scored the winning goal in that 2010 final, is still featuring alongside the excellent and much younger Koke, Isco and Marco Asensio. Iniesta is considering his future amid persistent talk that he’s going to China at the end of the season.

Spain’s goalkeeper, defence and midfield is all largely predictable. The two full-backs, Madrid’s Dani Carvajal and Barca’s Jordi Alba, were regulars in qualifying, as was David Silva further forward.

It is how they will play up front which is up for debate.

For the 3-0 win against Italy which confirmed their qualification for Russia, Spain didn’t field a natural forward, with the returning David Villa on the bench alongside Alvaro Morata, who has been struggling for form at Chelsea. Gerard Deulofeu, who can also play as a forward, was also on the bench with Pedro as the imperious Silva played in an advanced role, scoring twice.

As they have for the past decade, Spain, currently ranked sixth in the world, remain full of top quality talents. Their second XI would probably be a top 10 side, with players like Saul Niguez, Nacho Monreal, Pedro or Iago Aspas unlikely to start their biggest games, but this has long been so.

The key is to get them playing as winning unit, something 51-year-old Lopetegui, who is respected among his players, has managed to do in qualifying. He is yet to lose any of his 16 games since taking charge in 2016. Germany, who won all the qualifiers with an even better record than Spain, are unbeaten in 21.

He has also called up Diego Costa for the first time since 2016. The Brazil-born forward, now happy and back at Atletico, will give them another powerful dimension in contrast to the more balletic footballers behind him.

These games against Germany and Argentina are friendlies, but they are still big tests which could give some insight how Lopetegui’s men are likely fare this summer.