2014 World Cup Team Preview: Spain

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Getting to know… Spain
If you don’t know Spain, the 2014 World Cup is likely your first – and you’re probably new to international soccer on the whole. La furia roja took top honors in the 2010 tournament in South Africa, then followed it up by beating Italy to become champions of Euro 2012. They also won Euro 2008, making them seem practically invincible.

It may surprise you to know, however, that Spain haven’t always been such high achievers. Prior to 2008, Spain’s last real success came in 1964, when they won the European Championship. It then took twenty years for them to reach the final, while in the World Cup, their greatest success before 2010 was making it to the Round of 16.

Record in qualifying
The World Cup holders were handed a fairly easy group for UEFA qualifying. Group I, the only group to feature just five teams, included Belarus, Finland and Georgia. France were really the only team to give Spain much trouble, hanging on until the death in their tie in Madrid. Persistence paid off, Olivier Giroud scored deep in extra time, and France came away with a point.

Spain’s only real shock in qualifying came last March, when Finland, against the run of play, equalized when ten minutes left to play. That left la roja two points behind France. But Spain went on to win their final four matches, including the reverse fixture against les bleus, and finish top of the group.

A look at Group B

Obviously the number 1-ranked team is going to be seeded, so you’d think that Spain would end up being able to take it easy in the group stages, easily clinching a place in the next round. Not so. Alongside Spain in Group B we have Holland, Chile and Australia. This group could very well be one of the most intriguing to watch.

Netherlands will be determined to extract a little revenge, seeing as Spain beat them in the final four years ago (and the oranje were so impotent in Euro 2012 that the two didn’t even meet). Chile is a solid side with some attacking flair – if they can get the ball, they can likely cause trouble for Spain’s defense. As for Australia, no one expects them to progress, but they could still make life difficult for la roja.

Game schedule

Friday, June 13 at 3 p.m. ET: Spain vs. Netherlands (Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador)

Wednesday, June 18 at 3 p.m. ET: Spain vs. Chile (Estadio do Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro)

Monday, June 23 at 12 noon ET: Australia vs. Spain (Arena da Baixada, Curitiba)

Star player
Naming the star on Spain’s squad is nigh near impossible. The majority play for Barcelona and Real Madrid, with a scattered few at Chelsea and both Manchester clubs. The least-known player is Ander Iturraspe, yet to be capped for his country, who plays for Champions League-bound Athletico Bilbao.

For Spain, it’s more about leaving the egos in the dressing room in order to come together on the pitch. The team needs to be in tune to play their tiki-taka, possessing, passing, pressing forward. The names of the men that get this done are almost instantly recognizable: Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, David Silva.

And, of course, they’re still hoping that Atlético Madrid star Diego Costa will be fit enough to make the trip – for all Spain have going for them, they still lack a little shine up front.

(READ MORE: SPAIN ANNOUNCE 23-MAN WORLD CUP ROSTER)

Manager
Vicente del Bosque was at the helm when Spain lifted the Cup in South Africa, he was there when they took top honors in Euro 2012, and he’s still there, ready to make the last-minute adjustments necessary to ensuring his side make a deep run in Brazil. Del Bosque’s respectful of his players, adored by the Spanish public and, yes, won the World Cup already. There’s not much to find fault with.

Secret weapon
The dazzling brilliance of their goalkeeping kit. Iker Casillas may have played zero La Liga matches this season, and Victor Valdes may be out with injury, but Spain should have no worries about the men between the sticks. They’ll be wearing a glowing light blue shirt, which will be further highlighted by the outfield players’ uniforms: for the first time, Spain will be wearing all red, rather than the traditional red-shirts-with-blue-tops ensemble.

Prediction
When filling out my bracket, I had Spain beating Belgium in the semi-finals…only to end up facing Brazil at the Maracanã. Sorry, la roja, I just don’t think you’ll lift two consecutive cups.

Of course, if Spain stumble and finish second in their group, they’ll meet Brazil right away, which means they could very well be set for an early exit.

Agree? Disagree?

Cole returns to Chelsea as youth team coach

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One of Chelsea’s best players in club history is back at his old stomping grounds in a new role.

Chelsea finally confirmed over their social media channels that former left back Ashley Cole is back at the club coaching in the academy, helping the next generation of stars grow and learn the games. Specifically, Cole is coaching the U-15 squad.

[READ: Top Premier League Storylines]

“I’m also doing my badges at the moment and so being here at Chelsea means I have the chance to coach every day, whereas maybe if I wasn’t working at a club it would be hard for me to get the hours in,” Cole told Chelsea’s website. “I’m learning not just how to be a coach and how to speak to people in a different environment but the side of coaching that you don’t see like planning the sessions and setting up the equipment.

“As a player, you just turn up for a session and do it. If it’s a possession drill, you just arrive and try to keep the ball but now I’m getting to understand that there are always ideas behind a particular session or practice. Organization has to be key and those are the little details that it takes to be a great coach.”

While plenty from Cole’s era have moved into the media for lucrative punditry roles, it’s nice to see players like Cole and his former teammate Frank Lampard, now Chelsea coach, go into coaching to help pass on some of the great lessons they’ve learned during their careers. .

Cole said in the interview that he wasn’t sure what was next after playing three seasons for the LA Galaxy and then joining Lampard at Derby County for the second half of last season. He added that he got his first taste of coaching kids while with the Galaxy, helping some of the academy players and taking part in video sessions.

“The Academy are very good at giving ex-players a route back to the club and a chance to learn as coaches,” Cole said. “They’re eager to bring in people who understand what it means to be at Chelsea and what it means to wear the badge. You have to be a top player to play for Chelsea so they want those top ex-players influencing and trying to help the next generation develop and be better players.”

Spanish FA once again opposes La Liga match in U.S.

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For the second consecutive season, La Liga and Relevant Sports have proposed a league match to take place this winter in the U.S.

And once again, the La Liga proposal doesn’t have the support of its national soccer federation.

[READ: La Liga wants to move Villarreal-Atletico Madrid to Miami]

Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), told reporters on Thursday that it would oppose the match taking place outside of Spain’s borders, keeping a consistent line in the sand on how far globalization can go in soccer.

“It would disrupt the competition,” Rubiales said, via AS. “To play a game in Miami, La Liga needs permission from five bodies that it doesn’t have.”

The five bodies Rubiales referred to are the RFEF, FIFA, CONCACAF, U.S. Soccer and MLS.

Last time around, Relevant Sports and La Liga announced a long-term, lucrative marketing contract to expand the brand’s footprint in the Americas, and soon after, petitioned to move Girona’s home game against Barcelona to Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, the home stadium of Relevant Sports owner Stephen Ross and his Miami Dolphins.

Ultimately, La Liga president Javier Tebas and Relevant Sports were unable to get permission from the RFEF or FIFA to hold the event outside Spain and it went off as expected in Girona. At the time, Spain’s player’s union and fans groups opposed the move. Tebas has filed a lawsuit in Spain to try to force the RFEF to approve their request, but it seems unlikely to be awarded and it surely doesn’t provide any good will between the two parties.

There’s been plenty of talk about bringing league games abroad before, but it has just been talk so far. The Premier League considered adding an extra game to the season to be played all over the world, but never went through with creating plans for matches.

Associations – not leagues, to be clear – have brought things like Super Cups abroad. For example, the RFEF moved the 2018 Spanish Super Cup to Tangiers, Morocco, while the France Football Federation has brought its national Super Cup match to both the U.S. and Montreal, Canada in recent years. However, the argument in favor of bringing those games abroad is they’re basically meaningless. Meanwhile, one result in a league season could – in theory – determine whether a team is relegated or not, especially if the margin is three points or less.

We could see another legal fight on our hands, so watch this space, there’s plenty more to come.

Rodgers excuses Maddison’s behavior after England departure

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Leicester City and England midfielder James Maddison made headlines for the wrong reasons after he was pictured last week watching the England match at the Czech Republic from a casino.

Despite the negative attention from Maddison’s decision to watch the game at that venue, he has the backing of his club manager, Brendan Rodgers.

“The kid went away with the international team and took ill while he was away,” Rodgers said, via the Guardian. “He wanted to stay and hopefully be ready for the second game. But the England medical staff – which I can understand, as he had flu and they didn’t want that to spread to his teammates – decided it’s best for him to leave the camp. So he leaves, gets some tablets with our guys at the club, then he feels better.

“He watched the game at home on his own on the Friday and then goes out at half-time – probably he’ll make better decisions in his life but he went to a casino on his own to sit and watch the second half by a poker table. The suggestions are he left England purposelessly and then goes to a casino but that’s totally not the case at all. But his eyes have been opened now to the wider world in terms of what he did. He knows in hindsight he’s made a mistake.”

Considering all that went on during England’s international break, from the poor performance in Prague to the horrible racism endured in Bulgaria, this is a bit of a silly scandal. To be honest, as long as Maddison is taking care of his body and himself, why does it matter if he was at a casino, or a pub, or anywhere?

However, there’s no denying that the optics look bad. Folks didn’t know that he arrived to England camp with the flu, or a flu-like illness at least, and the England medical staff are right to send him away to make sure no one else gets sick. He may have been feeling better by Friday and wanted to get out of the house. I think we’ve all been there after being sick for a few days.

The most important lesson for Maddison is to learn that his actions, out of context, can be misunderstood. In terms of soccer, after Ross Barkley’s performance for England, Maddison will have to prove in his club form that he should still have a place in the England team for the near future. There’s only two more international dates left before the 2020 Euros, so time is running out for Maddison to make an impact to Southgate.

Tierney, Lacazette available for Arsenal

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Arsenal are edging closer to finally having a full-strength squad.

Ahead of Monday’s prime-time matchup with Sheffield United, Arsenal manager Unai Emery confirmed that Kieran Tierney was in line to make his Premier League debut, while Alexandre Lacazette was back in full training and should be in the gameday squad.

“Today is Lacazette’s first training back with us,” Emery said in a press conference on Thursday. “He finished it well and he’s feeling well with his injuries. Tomorrow we will be training again and he will be with us. We will decide.

“The most important thing is that first he is training, then secondly it’s whether he can be with us and it depends how he can feel in the next days training with us, whether his ankle is not giving him any more problems.”

This is a huge boost to Arsenal, which has had to rely on some youngsters and have made some lineup changes to accommodate not having Lacazette on the field. Tierney meanwhile could step into a position where there’s already a decent starter, Sead Kolasinac.

Lacazette’s return also couldn’t have come at a better time. In Premier League action, Arsenal’s high-powered offense has been stymied, scoring just two goals in the last two league games. Meanwhile, against weaker defenses in the UEFA Europa League and the Carabao Cup, Arsenal has bagged a total of 12 goals.

The veteran Frenchman has scored two goals in three appearances so far this season, including a big goal just before halftime in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham. However, he suffered a long-term ankle injury in that match that has kept him on the sidelines for more than a month.

“[Tierney is] ready to play,” Emery later said. Now we have two options in that left-back role with Sead Kolasinac and him. We’re going to play a lot of matches after Monday. We will need every player. It depends how he comes into the first training with us, Sead, after his international matches. We now have two players in that position and we can use one on Monday, it depends how they are, one or the other.”

Tierney, the 22-year-old Scottish left back, has made two appearances for the Arsenal first team since recovering from a double hernia operation over the summer. Signed from Celtic for around $32 million, Tierney adds a skill that Kolasinac has struggled with – expert crosser of the ball into the box, where the likes of Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can score when given a decent chance.