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Change in attitude key for Luis Enrique’s revamped Spain

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MADRID (AP) After only two matches, Luis Enrique already knows the key to his early success as coach of Spain’s national team.

Enrique said the team’s approach in the impressive wins over England and Croatia in the UEFA Nations League is what made the difference for a revamped squad since he took over.

“What I liked the most in these 10 days was the players’ attitude on and off the field,” the former Barcelona coach said. “In only a few training sessions they were able to put our ideas into practice.”

Enrique spoke after Spain’s 6-0 rout of World Cup runner-up Croatia in the Nations League on Tuesday. Three days earlier, La Roja had come from behind to defeat England 2-1 at Wembley Stadium.

“It was a spectacular day. I couldn’t have imagined it,” Enrique said after the team overpowered Croatia. “But regardless of the score, what I saw in the players’ attitude was what was important. With this level of efficiency and with this quality that we have in front of the goal, it will be very difficult to stop us.”

Fans loudly chanted the coach’s name during Tuesday’s game in the southeastern Spanish city of Elche.

“I was a little embarrassed. It surprised me,” Enrique said. “I’m thankful, but I prefer that they cheer the players, they are the real protagonists.”

Enrique was announced as Spain’s coach in July following the team’s World Cup debacle, when the soccer federation fired Julen Lopetegui two days before the tournament and the team eventually was eliminated by host Russia in the round of 16.

His first contact with players came less than two weeks ago in training camp. He immediately imposed his energetic style in the practice sessions, and it translated onto the field in the first two matches.

Enrique had already taken action to bring the players together and build greater camaraderie within the group, including banning cell phones during meals so players could spend more time talking to each other. He also took the squad to an “escape room,” where players had to work together to solve puzzles and try to break out.

“I liked what I saw from the players the whole week,” Enrique said.

On the field, the coach also implemented important changes, making the team apply more pressure without the ball and playing a more direct game in attack, relinquishing the endless short passes that used to be a characteristic of Spain’s national team.

“Luis Enrique asks us to be very aggressive up front, to pressure and try to dominate, not giving the opponent any breathing room,” said Marco Asensio, who scored a goal and set up three others against Croatia on Tuesday. “We needed to get this sort of feeling back. We’ve put in two great performances.”

Asensio was the man of the match against Croatia but he didn’t even start against England. Iago Aspas played at Wembley and also performed well. Saul Niguez, who has become an undisputable starter for Enrique in midfield thanks to his versatility, also scored on Tuesday, as did Sergio Ramos, Rodrigo and Francisco “Isco” Alarcon.

Spain’s next match is a friendly against Wales on Oct. 11 in Cardiff. Four days later it will host England in Seville in the Nations League.

“Now we have time to analyze everything in more detail,” Enrique said. “There are things to improve despite these first two matches.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

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UEFA Nations League wrap: Enrique’s Spain unloads on Croatia

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The UEFA Nations League rolled on Tuesday with a pair of big names earning blowout wins, one more surprising than the other.

[ MORE: USMNT-Mexico preview ]

Spain 6-0 Croatia

The visitors went to the World Cup Final.

The hosts were bounced at the group stage amidst managerial turmoil.

So, of course, new Spain manager Luis Enrique saw his side bury the World Cup runners-up by a half-dozen goals in Elche.

Marco Asensio’s sensational first international goal (above) was joined by a Croatian own goal and four different Spanish goal scorers (Saul Niguez, Rodrigo, Sergio Ramos, Isco).

Iceland 0-3 Belgium

A Romelu Lukaku brace joined Eden Hazard‘s 29th minute penalty kick in giving Belgium a win its UEFA Nations League debut and sending Iceland to a second-straight loss in the nascent competition.

Elsewhere
Bosnia and Herzegovina 1-0 Austria
Hungary 2-1 Greece
Finland 1-0 Estonia
Moldova 0-0 Belarus
San Marino 0-3 Luxembourg

Five friendlies to watch closely over the next week

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The UEFA Nations League is taking center stage in this international break, but there are several other interesting matches on the docket outside of the new, formal UEFA competition.

[ MORE: Girona-Barcelona in Miami ]

A pair of them involve the United States.

In some circles, you could call that bias (and we certainly care more about U.S. matches than the rest of the world). But there’s hardly such a thing as a friendly against El Tri, and people will have one eye tuned-in any time Neymar hits the pitch.

Here are five top matches to scout this week.

Mexico vs. Uruguay — Friday (Houston)

These two sides boast an even rivalry, though plenty of eyes will be on Mexico without manager Juan Carlos Osorio (he’s off to Paraguay). El Tri‘s hot start to the World Cup cooled with a blowout loss to Sweden and 2-0 defeat by Brazil, and interim boss Ricardo Ferretti will bring a lot of youth to Texas; Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera, and Hector Moreno are among the big names left home.

Uruguay’s World Cup quarterfinal run ended with a loss to champions France, and that was the CONMEBOL side’s lone loss of 2018. Fabian Colto is the caretaker boss as legendary manager Oscar Tabarez’s future is mulled, and Uruguay will have most of its big names: Suarez, Cavani, Godin.

Portugal vs. Croatia — Thursday

We’ll get some tantalizing intra-Europe matches with the top groups of the UEFA Nations League featuring just three teams. This one sees Portugal without Cristiano Ronaldo and with plenty of interesting pieces; Ruben Neves, Andre Silva, Bernardo Silva, and Renato Sanches all bear close watching against a Croatian squad bringing its whole crew.

Colombia vs. Argentina — Sept. 4

While the reception Argentina receives at home to Guatemala earlier in the window will be fascinating, how Lionel Messi-less Argentina reacts to a match-up with Colombia will tell us more much more about the Albiceleste.

This is Paulo Dybala’s chance to shine bright, with no Messi, Sergio Aguero, nor Gonzalo Higuain in sight. Argentina will also hope to see plenty from its inexperienced but tantalizing offensive talent: Giovanni Simeone and Lautaro Martinez are among those hoping to join Dybala in restoring hope to Argentina.

Colombia? James Rodriguez is not coming, but Carlos Bacca, Luis Muriel, and Juan Cuadrado are in the fold, and Los Cafeteros have a lot of young bucks, too; Pay mind to Rangers star Alfredo Morelos and Spurs center back Davinson Sanchez.

USMNT vs. Brazil — Friday (NJ)
USMNT vs. Mexico — Sept. 4 (Nashville)

We’ll dive deeper into these two over the next few days, but the American side’s visits from Brazil and Mexico give us these three fun plot lines.

A) Was the stingy 1-1 draw against France pre-World Cup a fine indicator of progress?

2) How will the Yanks fare in both matches without Christian Pulisic, who’s injured?

D) Who’s deeper: next generation USMNT, or next generation Mexico (the latter featuring relatively-ignored-by-the-Yanks dual citizen Jonathan Gonzalez)?

Real Madrid reports Inter Milan to FIFA over Modric pursuit

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ZURICH (AP) Real Madrid has reported Inter Milan to FIFA over the Italian club’s pursuit of midfielder Luka Modric.

FIFA says it has received a complaint from Madrid ahead of the Serie A transfer window closing later Friday.

The 32-year-old Modric came on as a second-half substitute Wednesday in the UEFA Super Cup, which Madrid lost to Atletico Madrid 4-2 in extra time.

It was Modric’s first competitive game since the World Cup final, which Croatia lost to France in July.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Croatia forward Mario Mandzukic retires from national team

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ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) Mario Mandzukic is retiring from international soccer after 11 years with Croatia’s national team, with his decision coming a month after he scored in the World Cup final.

[ MORE: Messi to skip upcoming Argentina friendlies in U.S. ]

The 32-year-old Mandzukic made the announcement Tuesday on Instagram.

In an emotional farewell message, Mandzukic said the decision was made easier after Croatia reached the World Cup final in Russia.

“We lived our dream, made a historic result and felt the love of our fans,” Mandzukic said.

“There’s no ideal time for departure,” Mandzuklic added. “If we could, I believe we all would play for Croatia as long as we live because there is no bigger pride than that. However, I feel that for me that moment is now. That I gave my best and that I contributed to the biggest success in Croatian football.”

Mandzukic, who plays for Italian club Juventus, has played 89 games for Croatia, scoring 33 goals – trailing only Davor Suker’s national record of 45. He played at two World Cups and three European Championships.

Croatia lost to France 4-2 in the World Cup final on July 15, with Mandzukic scoring the second goal for his country.

In that match, Mandzukic also made history by becoming the first player to score an own-goal in a World Cup final after inadvertently deflecting a free kick from Antoine Griezmann into his own net in the 18th minute to give France a 1-0 lead.

Mandzukic also scored the decisive goal against England in the semifinals, finding the net in extra time to secure Croatia’s first ever appearance in a World Cup final.