16 July 2012

The Spanish are (still) coming!

Teenage starlet Jesé Rodriguez lifts yet more silverware for Spain.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water... Spain's latest batch of footballing sharks have told their rivals that they're gonna need bigger boats.

Spain have won the European Under-19 Championship for the sixth time in eleven years, and the second time in a row. A late goal from Real Madrid's Jesé Rodriguez gave the Spanish kids a 1-0 win over Greece in last night's Final in Tallinn, Estonia.

Jesé ended the tournament as top scorer with five goals - three of them came in a group game against Portugal. The 19-year-old Canary Islands native has received comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo, whom he replaced as a substitute to make his senior Real debut against Real Sociedad back in March. But if Real Madrid's recent record of developing youngsters is anything to go by, don't be too surprised if he gets carted off to Bolton Wanderers any time soon...

In all seriousness, though, Jesé is only one of a few Roja rookies destined for an exciting future in football. English football fans may recognise the names of Manchester City midfielder Denis Suarez and Liverpool forward Suso in the squad, while left-back Alejandro Grimaldo and forward Gerard Deulofeu have been touted as future Barcelona first-teamers for a while.

An equally prodigious member of the Spanish team is their captain (and yet another forward) Juanmi. Like Deulofeu, he was also in their 2011 Under-19 champion squad, and his record of five goals in 28 league games for Malaga is at the very least promising. I should also mention Valencia duo Paco Alcácer and Juan Bernat to complete an octet of Spanish teens to look and listen out for in the future.

This latest triumph got me thinking. What could Spain's starting line-up for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil look like as they aim to lift an incredible fourth major title on the trot?

GOALKEEPER: Iker Casillas
As is typical of Spain nowadays, they have a glut of world-class players in a position, yet there is no debate over who gets the starting place. Casillas has been rated as the world's best goalkeeper for some years now, and has joined the great Dino Zoff on the short list of successful international keeper-captains. José Reina is so unfortunate to be playing in Casillas' era, and David de Gea is in line to be the long-term replacement if he matures and gains more composure at Manchester United.

LEFT-BACK: Jordi Alba
The berth that in Spain's earlier triumphs was taken up by Joan Capdevila is now well and truly Alba's. Barcelona's new signing was effective in both attack and defence during UEFA Euro 2012, and will be 25 when he is expected to board that plane bound for Brazil. Alternative choices, should Alba not be available, include Athletic Bilbao youngster Jon Aurtenetxe and Vila Didac of AC Milan.

CENTRE-BACKS: Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos
Again, not much difference from the class of 2012, but with good reason. Pique has replaced the ageing Carles Puyol as Spain's defensive rock and will be 27 years old, which is the age where most defenders start to reach their peak. Ramos is just a year younger, and seems to have got even better since he got rid of his silly Hanson haircut. His team-mate Raul Albiol is a capable back-up, as will be Víctor Ruiz and Mikel San Jose.

RIGHT-BACK: César Azpilicueta
Some of you might be surprised and be thinking: "What? Shouldn't it be Alvaro Arbeloa?" Even though Azpilicueta has not played for Spain at senior level, and currently plays for Marseille in France's Ligue 1, I've picked him as a dark horse to make the squad - especially if he impresses for Chelsea, who are interested in the pacy youngster. If I'm wrong, the starting place will either stay with Real Madrid's Arbeloa, or even be shifted to Barcelona rising star Martin Montoya.

I'm going to assume that Spain will still be playing 4-3-3 in 2014, in which case Alonso will probably remain on the left of a very central-minded midfield. There are very few players, even including his Spain and Real Madrid team-mates, that can pass the ball better than Alonso, who'll be 32 in two years' time. But in case Nigel de Jong decides that he wants to finish him off, Vicente del Bosque can also call upon Santi Cazorla or Juan Mata.

Busquets' rise from an unknown in 2008 to anchorman in 2012 has certainly been rapid, and you can bet your bottom Euro that he'll still be a starter when Brazil 2014 arrives. At 26 years of age, the Barcelona defensive midfielder will be even stronger than he is right now. Waiting on the bench will be club team-mate Thiago Alcantara, the son of Brazilian World Cup winner Mazinho, and Athletic Bilbao duo Javi Martinez and Ander Herrera.

As successful as he has been for club and country during the last decade, Xavi will be 34 at the next World Cup, and his showings at Euro 2012 suggest that his best days are fading away. Navas is not as accurate a passer as Xavi (but who is?), although the winger's quick dribbling and his ability to get past defenders will make him an asset. Should he not make the grade, there's always the versatile Pedro Rodriguez to turn to, or maybe there'll be a swansong for the great man.

LEFT-WINGER: Andres Iniesta
Without doubt Spain's best player at Euro 2012, Iniesta can play anywhere in midfield, but excelled on the frontline. An exceptionally creative and precise passer of the ball, the former defensive midfielder has very few weaknesses and will be at the usual peak age of 30. Waiting on the wings is the sought-after Athletic Bilbao kid Iker Muniain - the so-called 'Spanish Messi' who recently won his first cap for La Furia Roja and will frighteningly be only 21.

Spain showed at the Euros that they aren't desperate for a centre-forward, but in Villa they have one of the most natural goalscorers in the game. A broken leg did for his chances of featuring at this summer's tournament, but when he recovers, we'll see how little (if any) of his deadliness in front of goal he has lost. With 82 caps and a national-record 51 goals to his name, it's hard to see him not featuring when Spain defend their world title. Then again, Cesc Fabregas didn't do too badly as a makeshift CF, and you simply cannot ignore Fernando Torres.

'Merlin' was magical last season with Manchester City, and also at Euro 2012, so just imagine what he'll be like as a 28-year-old in Brazil! Silva's ball skills and electric pace are just two of his many strengths, and in a couple of years' time, he could have established himself as the Premier League's best player in any position. As for his deputies, Isaac Cuenca is starting to emerge at the Nou Camp, and who knows what'll happen with the aforementioned Jesé Rodriguez?

If there are any players which I have forgotten (and Spain being Spain, there are sure to be many of them), please let me know.

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