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Covid, a goal drought and the Ramos backlash - Luis Enrique feeling the heat ahead of Spain's Euro 2020 opener

08:00 BST 14/06/2021
Luis Enrique Spain
He left out every Real Madrid player available to him, has had to deal with a Covid-19 crisis and his team are struggling in front of goal

Spain have endured a rocky Euro 2020 build up and the coach’s risks have exacerbated the chaos instead of containing it. For better or worse, Luis Enrique is a stubborn man who knows what he wants. 

The former Barcelona manager is insisting everything is fine, from the team’s issues in font of goal to their scattered preparations after Sergio Busquets and Diego Llorente tested positive for Covid-19.

Only time will tell if he is right.

The problems have stacked up for Spain, recalling their horrendous start to the 2018 World Cup, with coach Julen Lopetegui sacked on the eve of the tournament, after agreeing to take over at Real Madrid.

There have been problems outside of Luis Enrique’s control, like the coronavirus cases. Captain Busquets was hit first and the squad were forced to isolate and train individually. La Roja were only able to regroup two days before their Group E opener against Sweden, set to take place in temperatures stretching into the upper 30s in Seville.

Spain have been training at warmer periods of the day to acclimatise.

“I expected it to be hotter to tell the truth,” said Luis Enrique, typically contrarian. “If there’s something good about human beings, it’s their capacity for adaptation. We look forward to the future, despite having a tough week.”

Their final tune-up friendly against Lithuania saw the Under-21 side return from holiday and play the game in place of Spain’s quarantined first team. Spanish FA (RFEF) chief Luis Rubiales complained about national broadcaster RTVE moving the game from channel one (La 1) as a result, and putting it on ‘Teledeporte’, a sports channel, instead.

“For the first time in history they have taken the decision to move a game programmed for the main channel to another,” said Rubiales. “Today we needed more support than ever. If you want to respect the players, the national team and the federation, this is not the way.

“I hoped they’d treat the team of all Spaniards with more respect and more care, above all in a moment of weakness.”

The youngsters ran out 4-0 winners and most of them joined up with a separate ‘parallel bubble’ of Spain players, training away from the isolating first teamers. Players including Carlos Soler, Pablo Fornals and Brais Mendez were brought back from holiday and put to work, options in case of further positive cases. In the end, it was in vain.

“It’s not that we want to wait for Sergio, it’s that we’re going to wait for him,” said Luis Enrique, decisively. Spain were less decisive over whether to get the players vaccinated, with the army eventually taking charge of the job a few days before the Euros began.

“We have to know that there could be side-effects,” said the coach, while the team was waiting for confirmation. “We would like it to happen as soon as possible because there could be symptoms and issues, and that would really be bad."

 

Another huge talking point in Spain has been Lucho’s decision to snub Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos, who has not found consistent fitness in 2021. Despite heavy pressure from the Spanish media to call up the captain, Luis Enrique left him behind, watching from his sofa.

The coach could have brought Ramos along, plus another player, but instead opted to take 24 men to the tournament instead of 26. That was a decision widely criticised, given the chances of coronavirus having an impact at the tournament, and the exhaustion of players at this point in a relentless calendar. But still the headstrong coach held his ground.

“Right now, I’d call up 23 players instead of 24,” he said, doubling down on his minimalist squad stance. “The more people you have together the easier it is to get the virus, I would not have changed my plan.”

Other names Spain might have called up stand out. From Atletico Madrid's La Liga-winning midfielder Saul Niguez to Sevilla’s right-back Jesus Navas, there are eye-catching absences. Just six players remain from the 22 called up for the first game of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.

Spain have trouble putting the ball in the net, emphasised by their 0-0 draw with Portugal earlier in June. Fans jeered both Luis Enrique and striker Alvaro Morata at the Wanda Metropolitano, the latter after he struck the crossbar instead of netting the winner.

That’s where Celta Vigo marksman Iago Aspas might have helped out, but he is one of several players Luis Enrique is refusing to turn to, even though he might provide an obvious solution.

Instead the coach is putting his faith in the next generation, from wide forwards Ferran Torres and Dani Olmo to Barcelona midfielder Pedri, who is set to become Spain’s youngest debutant at a major international tournament.

The coach also faced complaints for not calling up any Real Madrid players. Understandable in the cases of Ramos and injured duo Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vazquez, less so when it comes to Nacho Fernandez, who played at an impressive level this season.

“If a coach isn’t the leader it’s a bad sign, he has to be one,” Lucho told reporters on Sunday afternoon in the Andalusian heat, willing to take any criticism on his strong Asturian chin.

He has plenty of decisions to make in the coming days. Aymeric Laporte, recently nationalised from France, is fighting for a place in the defence with Villarreal’s Pau Torres and Manchester City’s Eric Garcia. The trio have 17 international caps between them.

Spain are the fourth-youngest team at the tournament, with only Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba boasting international trophies under their belts.

Luis Enrique also seems uncertain of his best team, with few names nailed on to the team-sheet and no star players. That was one of the upsides of leaving Ramos behind, with Luis Enrique in total control of a youthful bunch.

“Few few times have I had a working group with this good of an atmosphere,” said the coach. “I only remember something like this when I was in charge of Barca B.”

Comparing Spain to the Catalans’ youth team emphasised this is a squad without expectations to reach the final stages of the tournament, a far cry from the Spain team that won the Euros in 2008 and 2012, sandwiching their 2010 World Cup triumph.

The RFEF, and president Rubiales in particular, have backed Luis Enrique completely, despite his unorthodox decisions, and fall-out with “disloyal” former assistant and stand-in coach Robert Moreno.

Even before the recent drama, the road to the tournament was spiky. Luis Enrique stepped down as Spain coach in March 2019 because his daughter, Xena, was ill with bone cancer. After her tragic death, he returned in November, ousting Moreno with the backing of the RFEF, with his former assistant trying to keep the coaching job.

No wonder, then, that he describes the past fortnight as “child’s play, compared to what I have gone through.” And yet if Spain are eliminated early, heavy criticism will be heading in his direction.

Luis Enrique will welcome it, safe in the knowledge that whatever happens, he did it his way.