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After A Decade Long, Spain Set Sights On 4th European Title

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Ten years on from the World Cup demolition at the hands of the Dutch that marked the end of their golden era and Spain are beginning to believe again.

‘We feel as strong as the strongest,’ declared Luis de la Fuente on the eve of this tournament, where his team will start against Croatia, the opening fixture to the fiendish Group B.

De La Fuente is 18 months into the job of restoring lustre to a team which passed itself to a standstill under Luis Enrique at the World Cup in Qatar then failed to score a single penalty as they crashed out in a last-16 shootout against Morocco.

The 62-year-old who spent nine years in charge of various development teams from Spain’s Under-19s to Under-23s has been a soothing influence, making them team a little more direct while remaining loyal to players he knows well.

‘I am convinced the footballers we have are exceptional,’ De La Fuente told Marca Radio, this week. ‘I am convinced of the potential we have. This team is going to be fighting until the end and we are going to compete with the best.’

As with England, Spanish football is producing a glut of highly technical creative young players from the academies of its leading clubs and a shortage of quality in other key areas.

There are rapid wingers such as Nico Williams, 21 years old of Athletic Bilbao, and Lamine Yamal of Barcelona. Yamal is the most precocious talent, still only 16 and destined to become the youngest player in the history of the Euros when he appears.

‘An incredible talent, almost a gift from God,’ said De La Fuente on Yamal. ‘Very few players have his attributes.’

Gavi is absent is out with a cruciate knee injury but Pedri is fit again, finishing the season in good touch at Barcelona, where Fermin Lopez has emerged this season and stormed De La Fuente’s plans.

Rodri is immense, integral to it all and in the habit of winning. The Manchester City midfielder, Mikel Merino, Mikel Oyarzabal, Dani Olmo and goalkeeper Unai Simon all played in successful youth teams coached by De La Fuente.

Under his leadership, Spain won the U19 Euros in 2015, were runners-up in the U21 Euros in 2017 and won the U21 Euros in 2019.

A problem at the back has been solved by adopting two centre-halves from France. Aymeric Laporte, the former Manchester City defender now playing for Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia, and Robin Le Normand of Real Sociedad.

Laporte will miss the first game through injury with his place expected to be taken by Nacho, of Real Madrid. Full-backs Carlos Carvajal of Real Madrid and Alex Grimaldo of Bayer Leverkusen come into the Euros after incredibly successful seasons at club level.

And then there is Alvaro Morata. The captain who has scored 35 goals for Spain and only David Villa, Raul and Fernando Torres have more.

Morata’s career through such illustrious clubs as Real Madrid, Juventus, Chelsea and Atletico, has fuelled endless debate. He has been ridiculed for erratic finishing and criticised for his sensitivity.

In March, he was booed by Spain fans during a friendly against Brazil in Madrid’s Bernabeu Stadium and spoke this week to Cadena Ser radio about the ‘many Spaniards who want the national team to do badly’ and his instinct to leave Atletico to play abroad free from the hassle.

All this grinds against an appreciation that the 31-year-old is still standing and deserves credit for that if nothing else, and that there is probably nobody better equipped to lead the line.

Morata first played for Spain in November 2014, as Vicente del Bosque sought to regenerate after the World Cup debacle in Brazil where they were thrashed 5-1 by the Netherlands, lost to Chile and the defence of their title ended at the group stage.

He lost his place during that miserable spell at Chelsea and was recalled by Enrique. At Euro 2020 he came off the bench to equalise in Spain’s semi-final against Italy only for his penalty to be saved in the shootout, a sequence of events to sum it all up.

‘I defend him tooth and nail,’ said De la Fuente. ‘He is not recognised for everything he has done. His entire professional career places him as a great world figure. For me it is indisputable.’

Morata must bind the forward unit together and enable the youthful talent to shine. To provide an outlet and an aerial goal threat as well as a leader.

Find the blend and they can move Spanish football clear of the storm created by Luis Rubiales, the FA boss who appointed De La Fuente before disgracing himself in victory at the Women’s World Cup last year.

To return to Berlin on July 14 and become the first nation crowned European champions four times. ‘We know we are here to go after our fourth, that’s our mentality,’ said Rodri, although Group B is devilishly tough.

‘The hardest group, it’s a fact,’ said Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic, whose team of gnarly veterans such as Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic is led by 38-year-old Luka Modric, who has spent the last dozen years beguiling Spanish audiences with his brilliance for Real Madrid.

‘If somebody gave me a paper and asked me to write what I wanted to achieve, I would have been afraid to write all this down,’ said Modric, whose first taste of a major tournament came in Berlin at the 2006 World Cup as an unused sub against Brazil. ‘I didn’t expect all this to happen.’

Now, he has 175 caps on the eve of another challenge against a team he knows well. Croatia lost to Spain on penalties in the UEFA Nations League final in Rotterdam last year and lost to them 5-3 after extra time in Euro 2020 but have faith in their experienced squad. ‘We are here to make a big result,’ said Modric.

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