Time to rebuild for Spain after another early elimination
SAINT-DENIS, France (AP) At least Spain leaves the European Championship knowing exactly what it needs to do.
Rebuild a team that's beginning to look frayed at the edges.
After two consecutive European Championship titles in 2008 and 2012 and an intervening World Cup, Spain was dumped out of Euro 2016 at the round of 16-stage by a resilient and well-drilled Italy.
The 2-0 score-line did not in any way flatter the Italians, who pressed from the get-go and denied the Spaniards the opportunity to impose their passing dominance on the game.
It's the second straight major tournament that Spain has failed to reach its previous heights. At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, La Roja failed to even get out of its group in what ranks as one of the least impressive title defenses.
The latest failure clearly highlights Spain's need to replace a successful - but aging - generation of players. For starters, Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta and David Silva are all more than 30 years of age.
''We are not favorites anymore,'' Spain defender Gerard Pique said. ''We are a team that can win matches, because of our name and our past, but we are not the best team. We showed against Italy, and also against Croatia (in the group stage), that we are a team with very good players but we are not in position to win tournaments right now.''
The 29-year-old Pique, who was an integral part of the teams that won the 2010 World Cup as well as Euro 2012, said Spain must have a big rethink.
''It's not only about the level of the players,'' he said. ''The style of game, even though we want to keep playing the same way, has not been effective. It's a little bit of everything. We all need to reflect about our style and our level to try to qualify (for the World Cup) in these next two years. If we really want to win major tournaments again we will have to reach another level.''
The revamping may have to start at the very top, as coach Vicente Del Bosque is not likely to remain in charge after Euro 2016. Del Bosque had hinted before the tournament that it could be his last competition with the national team, and after Monday's loss he said his future would be decided in upcoming talks with the Spanish federation.
Back in Spain there were calls for Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone to replace Del Bosque, who many criticized for not bringing in more youngsters to facilitate the transition between generations. Del Bosque only brought five players younger than 25 to Euro 2016, and only striker Alvaro Morata got to start. He didn't even give the youngsters a chance in Spain's final group match even though the team had already qualified.
Del Bosque said he doesn't expect Spain to struggle in the near future even if its veteran stars begin leaving the national team.
''Our football is well structured, we have good youth squads and good young players,'' said Del Bosque, who took charge of Spain's national team after Euro 2008.
Names tipped for the future include Lucas Vazquez, Marc Bartra, Hector Bellerin and Saul Niguez, all of whom have impressed at their clubs for some time.
With or without Del Bosque, Spain must now focus on trying to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia from a group that also includes Italy. The first qualifying game will be in September.
''We had a great run in the last few years, winning the two European Championships and the World Cup,'' Ramos said. ''We weren't used to the possibility of losing. But you play against great teams and great players who make you value what you won in the past. We trust this group and the new generation of players that we have.''
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/tales-azzoni