Spain's Troubled Euro 2020 Preparations Threaten Another Tilt At The Last Four

Just as at the 2018 World Cup, Spain have been hit in the build-up to a finals tournament
06:55, 10 Jun 2021

Spain’s preparations for Euro 2020 were plunged into chaos on Sunday when midfielder Sergio Busquets tested positive for Covid-19. The Barcelona midfielder immediately returned home to self-isolate and will miss the start of the competition as he begins a period of 10 days in quarantine.

All of the squad then tested negative twice, but the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) announced that none of those players would take part in Tuesday night’s final friendly fixture at home to Lithuania.

That match went ahead because Lithuania had already travelled, but it was Spain’s Under-21 side in action and the youngsters impressed in a 4-0 win in which all of the players were awarded full international caps. However, none of those are likely to end up at Euro 2020 and coach Luis Enrique was deprived of the opportunity to assess his team again before the competition gets underway.

In the meantime, Spain called up Raul Albiol, Rodrigo Moreno, Pablo Fornals, Carlos Soler and Brais Mendez to train with the team on Monday and they were joined by goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga on Tuesday. All of those players will be on stand-by in the event of further positive tests.

It was then announced that defender Diego Llorente had tested positive on Tuesday and the RFEF revealed in a statement that the Leeds United player left Spain's training camp in a medical vehicle late in the day.

Llorente will miss Spain’s opening group game against Sweden on 14 June, along with Busquets, who is asymptomatic and will train alone at home. The pair are not expected to be replaced at this stage and could be in contention for the meeting with Poland five days later.

Spain, sixth in FIFA’s world rankings, face Slovakia in their final Group E game on 23 June and should advance with relative comfort — especially as four third-placed teams also qualify for the last 16.

If Spain top their sector, they will be drawn against a third-placed team in the second round. But should La Roja finish as runners-up, they will face a second-placed side from Group D (which features Croatia and England).

In the quarter-finals, Luis Enrique’s men could be drawn against world champions France or holders Portugal. Spain and Portugal played out a goalless draw in Madrid on Friday.

AYMERIC LAPORTE IS LIKELY TO LINE UP ALONGSIDE PAU TORRES
AYMERIC LAPORTE IS LIKELY TO LINE UP ALONGSIDE PAU TORRES

Manchester City defender Aymeric Laporte made his debut for La Roja in that match after recently being given Spanish citizenship. The French-born centre-back impressed alongside Villarreal’s Pau Torres and in the absence of captain Sergio Ramos, those two (both left-footed) are now likely to be the first-choice pairing for Luis Enrique at Euro 2020.

Ramos missed most of the second half of the season through injury after surgery for a torn meniscus and later a hamstring problem. The defender had hoped to be included in Luis Enrique’s squad, but was left out due to serious concerns over his fitness.

The decision to leave Ramos at home has caused consternation in some sectors of the Spanish media and that is a theme which will likely recur throughout the competition.

With Dani Carvajal also out injured, Luis Enrique opted not to select any Real Madrid players at all and this is the first time La Roja head into an international competition without any representatives from Los Blancos.

Luis Enrique has faced criticism for his decision to ignore Real Madrid, with many alluding to his past as a player and his bitter exit from Los Blancos to sign for Barcelona. But the Asturian did pick six Madrid players in his first Spain squad back in 2018 and perhaps the only surprise exclusion from Real was that of defender Nacho Fernandez, who was excellent for Los Blancos in Ramos’ absence and can operate in a number of different positions.

The squad announcement brought with it a number of other talking points. Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta is back after a long absence and looks set to be the starting right-back at Euro 2020. His back-up, bizarrely, is Atletico Madrid’s midfielder-turned-support striker Marcos Llorente. Sevilla's Jesus Navas can consider himself unfortunate to have been left out.

LUIS ENRIQUE'S PREPARATIONS HAVE BEEN HIT BY COVID-19 ISSUES
LUIS ENRIQUE'S PREPARATIONS HAVE BEEN HIT BY COVID-19 ISSUES

In attack, there was no place for Celta Vigo’s excellent Iago Aspas, while PSG's Pablo Sarabia was a surprise call-up. And on Friday, the draw against Portugal raised fresh doubts over which player will be trusted in the centre-forward role.

Alvaro Morata missed chances at the Wanda Metropolitano and was the subject of some cruel chants from the fans in Madrid, who sang “How bad are you” to the Atletico striker, who was on loan at Juventus last season.

Meanwhile, Luis Enrique looks set to keep faith in Unai Simon, despite an error-strewn season for the Athletic Club goalkeeper. Brighton’s Robert Sanchez had been touted as a possible starter at Euro 2020, but that seems unlikely now because the 23-year-old is yet to make his debut for La Roja. He had been due to play against Lithuania.

Spain's style retains a focus on possession, like the one which brought three major trophies (including two European Championships) between 2008 and 2012, but has been made more direct and aggressive by Luis Enrique. This generation is not at the same standard as that one, though, and the coach's decision to pick a 24-man squad instead of the permitted 26 also seemed strange. Last November’s 6-0 win over Germany showed Spain can still turn it on, albeit against an inexperienced defence that day, but there is not huge optimism ahead of Euro 2020.

After losing coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the positive Covid-19 tests for Busquets and Llorente have interrupted the team’s preparations again and Luis Enrique will hope for no further distractions.

Belatedly, Spain's squad are now expected to be vaccinated against Covid-19 ahead of Euro 2020. In the event of more positive tests, Luis Enrique has players in reserve and also talented under-21 stars he can call upon. But whatever happens, the current situation is far from ideal just days before a European Championship.

La Roja have not made it to a quarter-finals of a major tournament since winning Euro 2012, and a place in the last four would represent success this time around.

Progress beyond the last eight will depend on Spain's ability to score goals. In footballing terms, they can be a match for most, but a lack of firepower could be their downfall once again.

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