February 18, 2010

By Jonah Freedman, SI.com

Group H
Ryan Nelsen
For all the star power Spain boasts, the ammunition is deadliest with tiny Andrés Iniesta moving the ball.
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
June 16 Switzerland Durban
June 21 Honduras Port Elizabeth
June 25 Chile Pretoria
Fast Facts
COACH: Vicente del Bosque (second year)
HOW THEY QUALIFIED: Finished first in UEFA Group 5
PREVIOUS WORLD CUPS: 12 appearances (1934, '50, '62, '66, '78, '82, '86, '90, '94 '98, '02, '06); fourth place in '50
Projected Starting Lineup
G Iker Casillas Real Madrid (Spain)
D Joan Capdevila Villarreal (Spain)
D Gerard Piqué FC Barcelona (Spain)
D Carles Puyol FC Barcelona (Spain)
D Sergio Ramos Real Madrid (Spain)
M Xabi Alonso Real Madrid (Spain)
M Andrés Iniesta FC Barcelona (Spain)
M Xavi FC Barcelona (Spain)
M David Silva Valencia (Spain)
F David Villa Valencia (Spain)
F Fernando Torres Liverpool (England)

Through April, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We continue with Spain. Click here for the full archive.

Key players

Some things never change for Spain. A quick glance up and down the roster of La Furia Roja reveals, yet again, an all-star team of some of the best talent in the game. In goal as usual is veteran Iker Casillas, who nearly won the 2008 European Championship title on his own with one sensational performance after another. The man Real Madrid fans call "San Iker" is appearing in his third World Cup and, impossibly, has become the second-most-capped keeper in Spanish national-team history at age 28. With apologies to Brazil's Júlio César, Casillas is arguably the finest keeper in the world. Not bad for a stopper who isn't even 6 feet tall.

In front of him is a water-tight defense, with an old-and-young pairing of Barcelona teammates Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué holding down the middle. The fullbacks are a similar story, with veteran Joan Capdevila on the left and Real Madrid young stud Sergio Ramos on the right. Between them all, they allowed a paltry five goals through qualifying.

But if attacking football is your thing, go buy yourself a Spain jersey immediately. The Spaniards led European qualifying with nearly three goals per game, thanks in part to striker David Villa (someone else you may remember celebrating frequently during Euro '08). The Valencia hit man scored seven goals in qualifying and could very well pass Raúl to become Spain's all-time leading scorer while in South Africa.

Villa's partner is Fernando Torres, who has dazzled the Anfield faithful since joining Liverpool in '07. El Niño's speed, power and touch is unparalleled, and his winning goal in the Euro '08 final was a thing of beauty that showed major cojones, too: Torres risked a red card by hard-charging onrushing Jens Lehmann, barely beating the German keeper to the ball and calmly chipping it into goal.

But Spain's true strength lies in its midfield. In front of Xabi Alonso, the epitome of a classy box-to-box central mid, sits the diminutive pair that makes La Furia Roja tick: Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. They may stand only 5-foot-7, but the Barcelona teammates are perhaps the best in the world at controlling the pace of the game and unleashing deadly passes that leave Spain's attackers free on goal and opposing defenders looking over their shoulders in agony. As Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson famously said after the '09 Champions League final, "I don't think Iniesta and Xavi have ever given the ball away in their lives."

What to watch for

It's a bizarre feeling for Spaniards. After years and years of being the world's greatest underachievers -- even more so than Argentina -- their beloved team is entering the World Cup as the odds-on favorite to win. And the strangest part is that Spain isn't dreading the big-game letdown or the crucial 89th-minute mistake that traditionally seemed to doom its team at every major tournament.

It wasn't just Spain's spectacular Euro '08 victory that changed a nation's mentality (though that title, just the second major trophy in Spanish history, prompted a months-long fiesta). Manager Vicente del Bosque took over where Luis Aragonés left off, and by the time last summer rolled around, Spain was on an unbeaten streak of 35 games, tying the record held by Brazil.

Of course, any U.S. fan knows exactly how that streak ended. The plucky Americans shocked the world by topping Spain in the semifinals of the '09 Confederations Cup last June in Bloemfontein, South Africa. It exposed Spain to some degree: If you sit back and dare to absorb the constant pressure, the Spaniards leave themselves open to speedy counterattacks (though having a world-class keeper like Tim Howard play the game of his life is another good way to parry the dizzying Spanish offensive).

But in the long run, that experience may help the Spaniards in their quest to win their first World Cup. They've always had the talent, the big-league experience and the makeup. Now they have that taste of success and unprecedented self-belief. And for once, the entire country is drinking the sangria.

Key match in group stage

June 25 vs. Chile. The defending Euro champs got a plum draw and really shouldn't have any problems in their group. But once again, if it's attacking soccer you like, the Group H capper is one not to be missed. Europe's leading offense will be up against a Chilean side that can score almost as easily (32 goals in 18 qualifiers, the second-best mark in CONMEBOL) but has a tendency to fall apart on defense. Chile allowed the most goals of any South American team to reach the World Cup. Get ready to yell yourself hoarse screaming, "Goooooooool!"

Celebrity scouting report: Sergio García*

Sergio Garcia This midfield is unbelievable. The starters are so good, world-class guys like Cesc Fàbregas, Marcos Senna and Santi Cazorla are forced to sit on the bench. If one gets injured, you know you can put another guy in who's going to do a great job. This is the type of depth Spain has never had. And as good as our attacking midfielders are, we have a lot of defensive midfielders who can pressure nicely and force loose balls, like Alonso, Senna and Sergi Busquets. ... What's also kind of crazy is the amount of youth. Most of the guys on this team are younger than 27. Many of the regulars, like Sergio Ramos, Piqué, Silva and Raúl Albiol, are around 24, and they're all experienced. And more good players are coming. This team could be very good for a very long time. That's the best feeling. ... I wouldn't say it's weird that we're favored, but it's definitely something different. The last few years, this team has been amazing. They have a different attitude and confidence in themselves and the atmosphere is different. From the players to the fans, we're all starting to believe that even in a tough game, we'll find a way to get it done.
* The PGA Tour pro is from the Mediterranean coastal province of Castellón, Spain. His favorite club is Real Madrid. As told to Jonah Freedman.

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