Qualification was already secure before Spain played the Czech Republic and Scotland this week, but these games still mattered. Especially for Vicente del Bosque, the coach, who was taking sportsmanship seriously: he did not want Spain being accused of having aided and abetted or, worse still, destroyed any other team's chances of playing at Euro 2012. So, Spain fulfilled its professional obligations and defeated both the Czechs and the Scots.
That was particularly important for a side that has been found wanting when games have not mattered: although it remains unbeaten and seemingly unbeatable in competitive matches, Spain has been hammered in friendlies by Argentina (4-1) and Portugal (4-0) since the World Cup and was held by Mexico. It only defeated Chile -- and that came after going 2-0 down.
In beating Scotland and the Czech Republic, in utterly dominating both, Spain completed a perfect eight wins from eight in its group. It also equaled the world record by winning 14 consecutive competitive games at international level. Better still, one of the few doubts that still hung over the national team looked a little closer to resolution last night: the left back. At the very least, a potential solution presented itself.
Spain's left back when it won the European Championships in 2008 and the World Cup in 2010 was Joan Capdevila. His inclusion finally ended the long term problems over a position that had been occupied, with carrying degrees of failure, by Romero, Raul Bravo, and Juanfran. This summer, though, Capdevila moved from Villarreal to Portugal -- where, out of form and out of shape, he immediately found himself left out of the Benfica squad. The consequence was natural: he found himself out the Spain squad too.
That left Vicente del Bosque searching for another left back. A little unexpectedly, he overlooked José Enrique (Liverpool) and Nacho Monreal (Malaga), who he had given a first call up to soon after taking over, and instead gave an opportunity to Jordi Alba -- a creative midfielder turned left winger who began his career in the youth system at Barcelona but never made it at the Camp Nou and who has been converted into a left back by Valencia coach Unai Emery.
It is a conversion for which Del Bosque has been grateful. Although Scotland may not be considered the stiffest of tests and while some Valencia fans believe that he is an impressive footballer without being an especially impressive defender, Alba performed excellently at the Rico Perez in Alicante. He provided the assist for the first goal and proved a constant threat on the left. When he was called upon to defend he did so too. More impressively, in fact, than the men alongside him -- men with greater experience and more natural defensive tendencies.
Even before the game, Del Bosque had praised Alba's ability to add something to the side in terms not just of defending but possession of the ball.
Afterward, it appeared he had got it right. Again. Before the last World Cup Del Bosque took three players that had not been had caps before: Javi Martínez, Pedro and Víctor Valdés. Few questioned any of the decisions at the time -- although the shedding of Marcos Senna looked, at the time, a little hasty. Afterward, no one did.
There will not be as many, if any, newcomers this time round. Indeed, Spain's squad looks notably settled going into the summer. The key doubts perhaps surround just three positions: left back, (backup) center back, and (one of the) striker(s). Or possibly even more than that, as last night suggested that the other thing Del Bosque discovered against Scotland is that, like Barcelona, Spain can play without a fixed No. 9.
A couple of weeks ago, David Silva complained that he felt like the player who most missed out at the World Cup, complaining that he had become a supporting actor -- he had gone from a guaranteed starter under Luis Aragonés to largely overlooked under Del Bosque. In giving him the false No. 9 role against Scotland, Del Bosque gave him the opportunity to make a case and demonstrated that he had no intention of punishing the Manchester City playmaker for his remarks. Silva scored twice and made the other. Silva had, as AS put it, finding no higher praise, "done a Messi."
That could allow Del Bosque to travel with a striker less and a creative midfielder/attacker more. Spain could well play only one recognized actual striker -- David Villa -- and Del Bosque could thus not to have to take the difficult decision of leaving out one of his many, many technical, ball-playing midfielders.
Injuries permitting, Spain's squad next summer will include the following 19 players:
Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas, Pepe Reina and Víctor Valdés (with Valdés perhaps having sneaked ahead of Reina as no. 2).
Defenders: Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, and Álvaro Arbeloa (Arbeloa's function as a versatile defender able to play on either side makes him even more valuable).
Midfielders: Javi Martínez (whose ability to play at center back, even if he has not yet fully convinced there in the experiments Del Bosque has carried out for Spain, makes him an even more useful addition), Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Santi Cazorla (who played as a deeper midfielder against Scotland and played brilliantly once more), Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, David Silva and Juan Mata. (Of whom Mata, Silva, and even Iniesta, Cesc and Cazorla can and have been used as and described as forwards by Del Bosque).
Forwards: David Villa, Fernando Llorente, and Pedro (if, like Del Bosque, you call Pedro a forward rather than a wide creative midfielder).
That's 19 players, which leaves four more places which are less clear cut.
One will have to be a left back. Nacho Monreal and Jose Enrique remain possibilities (Del Bosque will include Arbeloa but remains a little unsure about him as a first choice left back), while Del Bosque has also intimated that he will be watching José Ángel at Roma. Plus, of course, a winter window move and subsequent good performances could see Joan Capdevila get back in. But Jordi Alba's inclusion and impressive display against Scotland suggests that he will be the 19th player in the list above.
Another will be a center back. In fact, there may even be two more center backs included (although the inclusion of Javi Martínez suggests it could be just one). Carlos Marchena was a regular until recently, Raúl Albiol's lack of club minutes concerns del Bosque -- and indeed Albiol himself who has investigated the possibilities of moving in the winter window. In the last get together at the start of October there were call ups too for the U-21s center-back pairing of Sporting Gijón's Alberto Botía and Atlético Madrid's Álvaro Domínguez (who Del Bosque also believes may be able to play at left back). If he gets minutes, it is likely to be Albiol.
In midfield, Del Bosque was keen to add Jesús Navas as a more direct alternative for the World Cup but the Sevilla winger appears to be slipping from contention -- not least because of the performance. There could be another place for Thiago Alcántara, instead. Del Bosque has been quick not just to call him up but to give him minutes. The Spain coach also appears to have half an eye on the future, a legacy, as well as just this summer. Want an outside bet? Who knows, a brilliant season for Athletic Bilbao could even see a place for Iker Muniaín.
Up front there has been huge debate about the strikers that Spain will take.
Del Bosque has included Fernando Torres, Fernando Llorente (whose ability to hold the ball up and offer a different approach he admires) and Alvaro Negredo in the squad of late; Roberto Soldado, who has the best goals per minute ration of any Spaniard in 2011, has not been called up. His continued overlooking suggests that for all his goals, and while it was Del Bosque who first brought Soldado to Real Madrid as director of the youth academy many years ago, there is something that does not entirely convince him.
A recent poll had Spain fans voting for Villa first (43 percent) -- and there is no doubt about his position after he scored his 50th Spain goal on Tuesday night -- then Llorente (16 percent), then Soldado (15 percent), then Torres (14 percent) and finally Negredo with just 12 percent, despite having scored an impressive five times for Spain at a goal every 73 minutes. For Negredo it was a surprise; for Torres, it represented a slip.In the collective conscience he is no longer considered irreplaceable following a disappointing World Cup and a difficult start to his Chelsea career.
One columnist even claimed that Torres was living entirely off his winning goal at the Euro 2008 final.
Yet while some are lining up to declare Torres no longer worthy of a place in the Spain squad, he continues to have the support of Del Bosque. Del Bosque has been quick to flag up his recent improved form for Chelsea, has long praised the work he does to open up defenses for others -- something Villa has been keen to do too -- and has shown both loyalty to those who have achieved in the past, talking often of "trajectory," and also a predilection for those who help to build a strong group. Universally liked, Torres undoubtedly does that.
Against Scotland, though, Torres did not come off the bench. And the pressure continues to build.
There are still some places with no clear candidate to occupy them and others where the incumbent's position is not steadfast. There are cases to be made and cases to be won and lost. But one thing's for sure -- Spain's squad will be almost ridiculously strong yet again.
Predicted Spain squad for Euro 2012:
Iker CasillasPepe ReinaVíctor ValdésSergio RamosCarles PuyolGerard PiqueÁlvaro ArbeloaJordi AlbaRaúl AlbiolJavi MartínezXabi AlonsoXavi HernandezSanti CazorlaCesc FabregasAndres IniestaSergio BusquetsJuan MataDavid SilvaThiagoDavid VillaFernando LlorenteFernando TorresPedro