x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The tension is starting to show for Spain

Favourites and regular underachievers Spain are displaying signs of nerves ahead of the tournament, writes Andy Mitten.

Spain's Andres Iniesta managed an hour's playing time against Saudi Arabia as he continues his return to full match fitness.
Spain's Andres Iniesta managed an hour's playing time against Saudi Arabia as he continues his return to full match fitness.

Favourites and too often underachievers Spain are displaying signs of nerves ahead of the tournament, writes Andy Mitten. What was the last round of friendly games for many teams before the World Cup starts on June 11 has created anxiety rather than reassurance for several competing nations. France failed to beat Tunisia, while World Cup qualifiers Algeria and Paraguay both lost to the Republic of Ireland, who missed out on a trip to South Africa courtesy of Thierry Henry's handball in their play-off.

England and Spain managed to win at the weekend, but both were unconvincing. England needed two own-goals to overcome Japan and Saudi Arabia made Spain work until the death for their 3-2 last-minute victory. While the likes of Brazil, Argentina and the United States have already arrived in South Africa, many teams are still at their pre-World Cup training camps in Austria. The excellent training facilities, stadia, similar altitude and temperatures to South Africa, plus a ready supply of opponents, has made Austria the venue of choice for many countries, from the pariah state of North Korea to tournament favourites Spain - who were happy to return to the site of their Euro 2008 triumph.

Spain play South Korea, who were beaten by Belarus on Sunday, in Innsbruck on Thursday, then Poland in Murcia next Tuesday before they depart for South Africa. Vicente Del Bosque's side are uncomfortable being labelled favourites to win and the coach has warned against such talk. The Spaniards do not want to be tagged as likely winners because they believe it will encourage complacency. Xavi, the influential Barcelona and Spain midfielder who can arguably lay claim to being the world's best in his position, played down expectations.

"Spain has a great generation of players," he said. "We've never won the World Cup and while that would be a dream, we're not favourites." Surely Spain, the reigning European champions and second in the Fifa World rankings, must consider themselves as one of the favourites? "No, no, no," the Catalan insists. "We've only ever won the European championship. England, Brazil, Argentina and Italy - they have all won the World Cup. They are the favourites, not us.

"I don't like it when people say we are favourites. Look at what happened to the teams who went to the World Cup and thought they were favourites. Argentina in 1990 against Cameroon, France in 2002 against Senegal. "Overconfidence and complacency are great dangers. Many teams can win in South Africa, but the big games will be decided by small details." Spanish fans will be encouraged that Xavi played 75 minutes against Saudi Arabia alongside Andres Iniesta, his Barca teammate who had been troubled by injury in recent months.

Iniesta left the field after an hour, while Xavi departed 15 minutes later with the score at 2-2. He was replaced by the young legs and heartbeat of Athletic Bilbao's impressive side, Javi Martinez, the 21-year-old midfielder. Another Athletic player, Fernando Llorente, grabbed a last-minute winner, the forward playing for 19 minutes after replacing David Villa, Barcelona's new ?40 million (Dh184m) recruit from Valencia who was inevitably the scorer of La Roja's first goal with a fine header from an Iniesta cross.

Spain and Barca supporters are hoping it will become a familiar supply line. Del Bosque's side were well below their usually impeccably high standards, their defence uncharacteristically clumsy, but the mood in the Spanish camp remains in good spirits. Their mood was further boosted by the return of Fernando Torres, the Liverpool front man, who has been out with a knee injury since early April, to full training.

He is confident of being ready in time for Spain's Group H games against Switzerland, Honduras and Chile. sports@thenational.ae