Catalonia cloud lingers as Spain shine on road to Russia
Often overshadowed by off-field distractions, Spain’s thrilling World Cup qualifying campaign has shown a side laced with rising stars and proven winners can rule the world again in Russia next year.
After a week in which players and coach Julien Lopetegui were grilled at every opportunity on the rising political tension sweeping across Spain caused by Catalonia’s drive for independence, Lopetegui’s men did their talking on the field by sweeping aside Albania on Friday night to guarantee their place at the World Cup.
A three-goal spurt in 11 first-half minutes took La Roja’s tally in nine qualifying games to a mightily impressive 35 goals as a new generation of talent has injected the fresh blood needed after embarrassing early exits as defending champions at World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016.
The biggest cloud hanging over Spain’s World Cup candidacy remains how destabilising the political process could be to the harmony of the group.
Gerard Pique was jeered in Alicante on Friday, as he routinely is on Spain duty, for his outspoken defence of Catalonia’s right to self-determination, although he has never publicly backed independence.
Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba are the other Catalan players who are key parts of Lopetegui’s strongest side, but both avoid the political spotlight.
“Many things have happened since our arrival, but we have always tried to take the best decisions thinking about what is best for the team and our common objective,” said Lopetegui, who is now unbeaten in 13 games since replacing Vicente del Bosque after Euro 2016.
“I think it is time to start focusing on positive news in football and in the country because there are very good things.
“It is like when you see a very good painting with a speck of dust and you focus on the speck of dust rather than the painting.
“I think sport and the behaviour of the boys this week leads the way to show what we are and what we can be as a team. Sport is a good example.”
Pique has long since announced his intention to retire from international football after the World Cup and looks set to continue despite calls from some disgruntled fans and media members for him to step aside after voting in a referendum on independence, deemed illegal by Madrid, and marred by violent clashes last weekend.
“Pique’s future with the Spanish flag is unacceptable,” centre-right newspaper El Mundo complained on Saturday.
“He has laughed at Spain and won’t go until the throw him out in a strategy of Catalan victimisation.”
Winning his 92nd cap, Pique and Spain captain Sergio Ramos were the only two players Spain players to start on Friday who also won the World Cup final seven years ago.
Bitter rivals at club level with Barcelona and Real Madrid, Pique and Ramos have largely put their regular verbal jibes aside when forming an intimidating partnership as two of the world’s best centre-backs for a decade.
Yet, both are now over 30 and with central defence the one area where Spain aren’t blessed with strength in depth, keeping Pique and Ramos on good terms is vital to any chance of World Cup glory.
Elsewhere, Lopetegui is spoilt for choice as many of the under-21 team he led to win the European Championships in 2013 have made the step up.
The likes of David de Gea, Koke, Isco, Thiago Alcantara and Alvaro Morata have filled gaps left by the departed Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, Xavi and Xabi Alonso.
Yet a core from Spain’s heyday of three consecutive major tournament wins between 2008 and 2012 is maintained not just by Pique and Ramos, but also David Silva, Andres Iniesta and Busquets.
“We have a very good mix of veterans and youngsters,” said Thiago.”Spain have licence to dream again,” said Madrid-based sports daily Marca, who also declared the side “The czars of Russia.”
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