By Paul Macdonald & Ben Hayward
Spain's golden generation keeps on growing. The world and European champions' senior squads have been boosted by the tremendous talent of their youth sides, who have claimed continental crowns at Under-21, U-19 and U-17 level in recent years. And such is the quality of la Roja that as many as three teams in red and yellow could hypothetically challenge for glory at next year's World Cup in Brazil.
Del Bosque has called up a total of 64 players since taking over from Luis Aragones in the summer of 2008 - almost enough for three entire squads. Many of those footballers, such as World Cup winners Joan Capdevila and Carlos Marchena, have long since drifted out of the international picture, but Spain - on the brink of World Cup qualification - now boast a stronger squad than ever before and there will be some high-profile names left at home when their coach announces his list for Brazil next spring.
Spain's first XI virtually picks itself, although it would also likely include Brazil-born striker Diego Costa after the Atletico forward agreed to switch allegiance recently. Real Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso may also return to the initial XI, but is currently on the way back from injury. Whichever team Del Bosque puts out, Spain's starting side is probably the strongest in international football - and consecutive tournament triumphs at Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 are testament to that fact. Ahead of the next World Cup, little has changed, despite Spain's defeat to Brazil in the Confederations Cup in the summer. Man for man, la Roja remain the strongest side in world football.
Major changes are unlikely before the World Cup, but at least one of Spain's strikers are set to be disappointed - especially if Diego Costa is drafted into the squad. At the Confederations Cup, Alvaro Negredo was left out, but the former Sevilla frontman is on form with Manchester City, back in the current squad and was on the scoresheet for Spain on Friday in the 2-1 win over Belarus. There is no place in the latest list, however, for Roberto Soldado, still finding his feet at Tottenham, nor Chelsea's Fernando Torres. Ultimately, one or perhaps even two of the strikers will be disappointed. Meanwhile, Fernando Llorente has fallen out of favour following a disappointing season at Athletic Bilbao in 2012-13 and a shaky start to his career at Juventus.
Of the very top teams in international football, few can afford themselves the luxury of leaving out such players. Argentina's attacking quality can see the Albiceleste dispense with players such as Carlos Tevez and Juan Roman Riquelme, while Brazil have ignored Diego Costa, Ronaldinho and Barcelona's Adriano, among others.
England, meanwhile, would surely find a place for many of Spain's cast-offs. Roy Hodgson's side lack quality in midfield and attack, while the manager must glance enviously at la Roja's array of goalkeeping talent - especially as Joe Hart continues to struggle for form. Caps for England are currently much easier to come by than for Spain, with players such as Tottenham's Andros Townsend promoted to the senior side after just a handful of promising performances for their clubs. As it turned out, Townsend impressed with a wonder strike on his debut as England thrashed Montenegro 4-1 on Friday. In Spain, however, call-ups are much more difficult to come by. Just ask Barca's Cristian Tello, who was finally given a game by Del Bosque in August, but only after two whole seasons for the Catalan club. Tello, incidentally, is not in any of our three teams and has only an outside chance of making the squad for next summer's World Cup.
Spain's second XI still looks strong, with world-class players such as Isco, David Villa, Alonso, Thiago, Juan Mata and David Silva all included, along with Victor Valdes (who started for Spain on Friday) in goal and Carles Puyol at the back, providing the Barcelona centre-back (now 35) can prove his fitness ahead of the summer showpiece in Brazil. Few first XIs could boast such an array of talent and there is enough quality in that side for a hypothetical challenge at a major international tournament. In fact, many countries would be delighted to count on such a line-up for their first XI - let alone their second side.
A third team would also compete. Less experienced in defence, la Roja 3.0 nevertheless contains several stars, with Jesus Navas, Javi Martinez and Fernando Torres all World Cup winners, Euro 2012 participant Negredo a fine forward at international level when on form and double continental champion Santi Cazorla one of Europe's best midfielders. Still stronger than many international sides, this team could more than hold its own at a major tournament.
Three teams, then, that could challenge at the very highest level and some real talent still on the sidelines. No Soldado, no Michu, no Ander Herrera, Iker Muniain, Diego Lopez, David de Gea, Benat, Tello, Llorente... proof that no other nation in world football can currently match the strength in depth of la Roja. And to think some said that Tiki Taka was dead...