Uncertainty and Covid chaos curbs excitement for Spain's new era

Luis Enrique will hope uncertainty creates competition and a chaotic final week might have brought togetherness

AFP June 13, 2021

After a week without training and three years of upheaval, Spain head into their Euro 2020 opener against Sweden on Monday determined to leave the past behind but unsure about what comes next.

Luis Enrique was appointed to ring the changes in the aftermath of the 2018 World Cup, when going out on penalties to Russia had made it three consecutive failures to reach the quarter-finals of a major tournament.

The conclusion in the wake of defeat in Moscow was clear -- the historic crop of 2008 to 2012 had grown old and the style that placed Barcelona and Spain at the vanguard of football was painfully out of date.

At La Cartuja in Seville on Monday, only Jordi Alba will remain from the Euro success nine years ago, with Sergio Ramos cut and Sergio Busquets self-isolating after testing positive for Covid last weekend.

And yet while the names bear almost no resemblance to what went before, Spain's fresh mix of promising youngsters and high-end performers arrive without any real sense of what now fills the void.

Since the last World Cup, 61 players have played for Spain's senior team as the desire for a clean slate under Luis Enrique and, briefly, Robert Moreno, meant opportunities were spread far and wide.

But a crystallisation of those ideas never really materialised, meaning even the most forensic observers are struggling to predict who will start Monday's opener in Group E, which also includes Poland and Slovakia.

Some of the biggest question marks hang over the most important positions, with Luis Enrique refusing to confirm if Athletic Bilbao's Unai Simon will play in goal, ahead of David de Gea and Brighton's Robert Sanchez.

Ramos' omission means Pau Torres is expected to be partnered by Aymeric Laporte, the former France defender who declared for Spain last month and would be earning only his second cap against Sweden.

Koke, Rodri or Thiago Alcantara could all form the base of the midfield trio while the central striker might be either Villarreal's in-form Gerard Moreno or Alvaro Morata, who was mocked by his own fans in the last friendly against Portugal.

Results have been no easier to predict, with elation often quickly followed by disappointment.

Spain thrashed Croatia 6-0 and then lost to them 3-2. They beat England 2-1 before losing 3-2 at home, after being 3-0 down at half-time.

They put four past Ukraine and then went down 1-0 in Kiev. In November, they demolished Germany 6-0 before in their next game drawing 1-1 at home to Greece.

If Spain can deliver the peaks when they need them and eliminate the troughs, they will be among the cluster of teams ready to capitalise if Euro favourites France fail to live up to expectations.

But their most tepid performances, when possession has been ponderous and ruthlessness lacking, could just as easily leave them short of the latter stages again.

Luis Enrique will hope uncertainty creates competition for places and a chaotic final week might at least have brought togetherness to make up for lost time and preparation.

As one of only three coaches at Euro 2020 to have won a league title in Europe's five major leagues, Luis Enrique represented one of Spain's major strengths. His time with the team should have been precious.

Instead, Busquets and Diego Llorente testing positive for Covid-19 meant the players trained individually for most of last week while a friendly against Lithuania was handed over to the under-21s.

After picking only 24 players to allow for smoother sessions, Luis Enrique was left to manage 41, some training individually, others called up to form a back-up bubble and a further two self-isolating at home.

When he arrived, Luis Enrique promised to bring "evolution not revolution" but it has largely been about experimentation and now it must bring results. Sweden will be a step into the unknown.