Spanish Inquisition: Spain Not The Best In The World, Yet

Another game, another win for the European champions, but Del Bosque has some fine-tuning to do before la Roja well and truly live up to their billing...
So the champions of Europe met the champions of the world (circa 1966) and it went as most expected. There was no stalemate; a streak was to be broken on the night and it was to be Fabio Capello's. He went almost a year in charge of England without defeat, but another friendly away from home against one of the world's top team proved his side's undoing. A bridge too far.

What does this tell us? First of all, perhaps that Germany - who lost to England in Berlin at the end of last year - aren't actually a top side, despite reaching the final of EURO 2008. It also tells us that Spain, who disposed of the Mannschaft last summer, are perhaps the best in the world.

They are ranked first by FIFA, and following Italy's Tuesday night terror at the hands of Brazil, they are now without doubt the team to beat. Their undefeated streak stretches to 29 games, whereas Marcello Lippi, leading World Cup winners Italy in two spells either side of a wayward Roberto Donadoni era, managed 31 games without defeat. However, the wily tactician oversaw 13 draws compared to Spain's three. Can you believe that? Just three.

La Roja have strolled to this point with such consummate ease - and crucially, with a major trophy to show for it - that they are now well and truly, for perhaps the first time in their history, being touted as the greatest team in the world.

One of the men most responsible for their new status is Luis Aragones, who coached them to EURO glory. However, the majority of Spaniards would, when answering honestly, admit they wanted someone else in charge prior to the team leaving for Austria and Switzerland last summer. He was not a popular man and indeed not particularly successful in charge of Spain, until coming good in the midst of his last hurrah.

Indeed, the side that only hit stride during the final three or four games of qualification carried an improbable level of momentum from their first match onwards at the Euros. In the end Spain were deserving winners, while Aragones has since been doing his best to ruin all of Zico's good work at Fenerbahce. Vicente Del Bosque, who in his only prior experience at the highest level, coached Real Madrid in four of the most successful and celebrated years in the club's history, took over the national side and has, if anything, progressed in matters such as team selection, man management and media relations.

He's won all his games in charge, and yet, while no doubt in control for large spells against England in Seville last night, it was evident that this is a team still showing signs of weakness. Brazil are threatening a return to something resembling their best, while Argentina are on an almost insurmountable rise, led by Lionel Messi and coach Diego Maradona. Kings of Europe, Spain may be, but the Road to South Africa has less than 18 months of mileage left on it and the Spanish public will want to capitalise on this golden era: they will want their first ever World Cup.

On the evidence of last night, Spain will always have the quality to score goals, but remain slightly soft-centred and cramped in midfield. Remember, for all Spain's possession, England produced as many chances in the game, if not one or two more. The Three Lions were far from full strength - further than Spain were, for sure - and Don Fabio used the friendly to experiment more so than his opposite number. A full-strength England side would still have most likely met their fate, but Del Bosque's hand may have been forced into adopting more expansive tactics.

For one thing, there was no recognised winger in the team. This would have made a world of sense had a diamond midfield been adopted and appropriate freedom afforded to the full-backs. Instead, there was a free-for-all, mish-mash in midfield with Andres Iniesta, to his credit, playing wide-left with everything in his locker but a left foot. He was sublime.

Xavi was as Xavi is: the maestro. Xabi Alonso was at times like a third nipple and didn't find his defensive capabilities tested by a deep-lying England midfield. He did provide a superb pass to David Villa that led to the opening goal though. which is more than can be said for Marcos Senna. He was not only an extra man, but one that made very little positive contribution to the game beyond facilitating Spain's keep-ball antics. With all due respect to the man as a professional, as well as his form leading up to and during EURO 2008, he appears to be on the way down and certainly did not justify selection last night, not even as a ponderous, auxiliary right-midfielder.

And thus Sergio Ramos was, as he so often is, left to do the job of two men on one flank and did so admirably. Joan Capdevila meanwhile, was at his solid best on the other side. Left-back could become a problem position in the future, with the nation dealt the blow of Sevilla prodigy Antonio Puerta passing away at 21 just over a year ago. In the centre of defence, Gerard Pique and in particular Raul Albiol were impressive, which should hopefully see them usurp the agricultural Carlos Marchena in the pecking order to play alongside Carles Puyol.

Fernando Llorente has proven to be one of a handful of promising options to supplement the star striking duo of the world's best, David Villa, and Fernando Torres. There is also Daniel Guiza (currently ruining his career in Turkey with Aragones), young Bojan at Barcelona, Joseba Llorente and of course, in case you forgot, the country's all-time leading goal-scorer, Raul.

Exchanging Senna's position in the starting line-up with a right-winger would go a long way towards redressing the balance. Another Andalusian who is a would-be saviour in this problem position is Jesus Navas, but his crippling homesickness has prevented him from ever playing for the national side. His team-mate Diego Capel, who is a left-winger, has also put in some promising performances from the right hand side. David Silva, a substitute yesterday, does not want for technique and ability, but plays even further infield than Iniesta. There's always Santi Cazorla, but the fact that he didn't play even five minutes at the end perhaps indicates that Del Bosque doesn't see him as the answer.

And then there is the Cesc Fabregas conundrum. He is without doubt one of the world's best midfielders, but he must remain Diego to Xavi's Kaka and wait for his chance to succeed the Barcelona stalwart. Unless one of the strikers is withdrawn from the starting line-up, there is just no place to accommodate Cesc, and it cannot be at the expense of Xavi. Not now.

Del Bosque must be strong. He proved to have character at Madrid, but he cannot continue to simply play the best players in hope of victory. It's never worked for England, it didn't work for Brazil at the World Cup and if Spain aren't careful, it will catch up to them as well.

Some tough decisions must be made over the coming months that could determine the difference between this Spain side being the best on paper as they are now, or the best in the hearts and minds of all. A team to match the great Brazil, Germany and Italy sides of the past.

Sulmaan Ahmad,