COMMENT: Following back-to-back defeats against Netherlands and Chile and the pain of early elimination in a World Cup they had hoped to win, it's time to rebuild La Roja
Right now, Spain were supposed to be gearing up for a last-16 clash with either Mexico, Croatia or Brazil. They were meant to be en route to defending their title in this World Cup. Instead, they are heading home in humiliating circumstances, with their confidence crushed and their future uncertain.
What happened before was glorious: two European Championship crowns and a World Cup win in a spectacular six-year spell which made its mark on the game and will leave a lasting legacy. But what happens next is less clear for La Roja. It's time to rebuild, of course. But how?
This is not just the end of an era; it's also the end of the road at international level for many of Spain's stars. This teams needs new blood and for fresh faces to be integrated, old hands must make way.
|END OF AN ERA: SPAIN STARS CONSIDERING RETIREMENT
Alvaro Arbeloa already has. The Real Madrid right-back was left out of the squad by coach Vicente del Bosque and announced his international retirement prior to this tournament. Often made the scapegoat for Spain's defensive woes in recent times, this World Cup has served to highlight that the problem was, in reality, much greater.
In his place, Del Bosque picked Chelsea's Cesar Azpilicueta, but he hasn't impressed and the position surely belongs to Madrid's Dani Carvajal, surprisingly cut from the provisional squad, in the long term. Carvajal has replaced Arbeloa at the Santiago Bernabeu and is the logical choice to take over that role for La Roja as well. "Carvajal was very impressive in the last five months of the season. He has a great future ahead of him for Real and for the national team," said former Madrid and Spain full-back Michel Salgado earlier this month.
On the left, Barcelona's Jordi Alba remains young and can compete with Arsenal's Nacho Monreal for the other full-pack position, but there are more pressing concerns in the rest of the back line. Gerard Pique was dreadful in the 5-1 loss to Netherlands and is likely to lose his place permanently on that form, while Bayern Munich's Javi Martinez is not a natural defender. Real Sociedad's Inigo Martinez, attracting interest from both Barca and Madrid, should be given a chance, while Marc Bartra could be an alternative if he can add physical strength and aggression to his excellent timing and technique. Sergio Ramos, meanwhile, will be expected to improve as well after a forgettable competition.
Ramos' Real team-mate Iker Casillas is epected to retire from international football after this tournament, a decision he has been meditating for some time and long before his dreadful displays against Netherlands and Chile. In the meantime, Pepe Reina will start against Chile and at 31, the Liverpool goalkeeper could be an option for Euro 2016. If the idea is to build for the future, however, it's surely time to give Manchester United's David de Gea (currently injured) the job on a full-time basis.
In midfield, Andres Iniesta will win his 100th cap against Australia. Still Spain's finest footballer and 30 only last month, Iniesta can continue for at least another two years and may have his swansong at the next World Cup. On his day, there is no better midfielder around.
Not so Xavi. The Barca midfielder misses the Australia game with an injury and, at 34, is a fading force. Set to leave the Catalan club for Qatar this summer, he has probably played his last game for Spain as well.
Both Xavi and Xabi Alonso, ever-presents in this Spain side since 2008, are set to announce their international retirement in the coming days and in their absence, there will be more opportunities for Koke, Thiago and Javi Martinez. Thiago's brother Rafinha could also play a part in future, while his Barca team-mate Sergio Busquets will remain involved. And Cesc Fabregas, despite a spat with Del Bosque in training this weekend, will also play a part and Arsenal's Santi Cazorla is also keen to stay in the set-up.
In attack, David Villa - who is yet to feature at this World Cup - is also preparing to announce his retirement and Fernando Torres has surely reached the end of the road after a series of poor performances over the last few years. Madrid youngster Jese could come in to liven up the forward line, while there may also be a chance for his team-mate Alvaro Morata and Barca's exciting winger Gerard Deulofeu.
Despite a stuttering start, Spain are also likely to keep faith in Brazilian-born Diego Costa, who has already revealed he wants to continue representing La Roja. "I'm very proud to wear this shirt and excited about continuing to play for Spain," he said. Meanwhile, Isco is another who should return to the fold after missing the squad this time.
Del Bosque has said he is "enthusiastic and emotional" about staying on, so should be given the chance to reconstruct this team. Already backed by the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), the 63-year-old is the right man and is likely to stay with Spain. "I want to carry on because I am enthusiastic and emotional. Football is my passion and this is my job," he said on Sunday.
However, he too must change. Spain's long-lauded Tiki Taka style is no longer the force it was, with teams having found ways of hurting the team's possession philosophy. So as well as changes in personnel, tactical variations and alternatives are also required if Spain are to be successful again.
With this World Cup already over for La Roja, the rebuilding begins against Australia on Monday. "Australia is the first step to reconstructing our future; we cannot relax," Cazorla said. "There is a promising future ahead for Spain. We want to be world champions again."
Tha hard work starts now.