By Peter Staunton
It is curious that defending champions Spain scarcely feature as predicted winners for a lot of pundits ahead of the World Cup, with Brazil overwhelmingly tipped as the tournament winners.
On one level that might make sense. Spain were trounced by Brazil last summer. They were overwhelmed in the stifling atmosphere of the Maracana as Brazil demonstrated no small amount of fight to claim the Confederations Cup. Do not, however, read too much into that result.
The Confederations Cup final defeat was not a sign of things to come. It was, in fact, the best thing that could have happened for Vicente del Bosque.
While a comprehensive 3-0 defeat might have given Brazil the practice of lifting a trophy on home soil, for Spain the game and, indeed, the overall experience of the Confederations Cup, gave Del Bosque a clear indication of what would fit and what wouldn't if they were to retain the meaningful trophy this summer. It was a dry run with little at stake.
"We were beaten by a rejuvenated Brazil, playing in their backyard," Xavi told The Times of India last month. "We were beaten fair and square. But playing in Brazil exactly one year earlier will be of immense help for all of us. We are familiar with the conditions. We played five matches under variable climatic conditions. We'll have to play under almost similar conditions this time. It should help us play better."
Maybe it was better to lose.
In any case, Spain were not able to field their first-choice XI back then due to the absence of Xabi Alonso. When he fails to play for Spain, things change for the worse. Alonso is the strongest influence on this Spain team and his tenacity and his calm in possession sets the Spaniards apart as a champion side. With him, Spain will be less vulnerable to counter-attacks and will circulate the ball better.
At right back, Alvaro Arbeloa was given a stern examination by Neymar at last year's tournament but he has now been put out to pasture. Atletico Madrid's Juanfran proved over the course of the season that he could keep up with Neymar while Cesar Azpilicueta is another strong defender. In those two key areas Spain failed in the final but both have now been addressed.
There is perhaps a weariness towards Spain given how relentlessly successful they have been since 2008. They have won every major tournament they have entered and their demotion in people's esteem may be merely the projection of a wish to see another team's name on the trophy. There has been a recent trend to sneer at their heavy possession-based tactics. Their run to the trophy in Poland-Ukraine was greeted with an apathetic shrug around the continent.
"It's true that we were criticised for being boring at Euro 2012 but we are not at all worried with what people opine," was Xavi's assessment.
There is little justifiable reason to believe that Spain will do anything other than win the World Cup again. On what basis have Spain been relegated to third favourites? If it is because the World Cup has not been retained since 1962 then consider this. This Spain squad are history makers.
They are among the greatest international teams of all time. Their legacy can be sealed with an unprecedented fourth major trophy in succession. They have shown very few signs of slowing down despite the expectation that they would simply cease to be a threat at the World Cup.
"Obviously no-one is the same as six years ago," Fernando Torres told Marca last month. "When you're champions you focus on games differently. The past is the past. I want to win as much as I did in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Nothing has changed. The will to win is the same. No-one can doubt the commitment and this team did something no-one has done before."
They have met some stiff resistance as teams continuously batten down the hatches and field men behind the ball. Del Bosque, a relatively conservative coach, now has the option of more direct play to Costa as well as added muscle.
"Diego Costa is a player who has a lot of strength, provide mobility, freshness, dynamism and goals," Pedro Rodriguez said.
When they have to, Spain find a way. They have not lost a knockout match since 2006. They did not concede a knockout goal throughout Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012. For all the accusations of stagnation in the Spain ranks, this is a group which has grown almost telepathic in its understanding; more familiar, more fluent. "I think we are like a family," Juan Mata told Laureus in May. "We've known each other for a long time and we've played together for the last six to eight years so we feel really comfortable between us and I think this is the key."
Brazilians may be united in their belief that the World Cup is theirs. There is no doubt that the stage is set for a home win in the tournament but it would be foolhardy to write the champs off.