Former Porto and Rayo Vallecano manager Julen Lopetegui takes charge of Spain in a competitive fixture for the first time when the 2010 World Cup winners begin their bid to reach the next edition of the competition in two years’ time against Liechtenstein (7.45pm, Monday).
Spain have regressed since winning three consecutive international tournaments between 2008 and 2012. Two years ago they were knocked out of the World Cup in Brazil in the group stage. They also suffered an early exit in the first knockout round of Euro 2016 earlier this summer, despite playing some excellent football in their first two matches.
Lopetegui was appointed as Vicente del Bosque’s successor when the ex-Real Madrid boss stepped aside after the tournament in France. There were signs in Thursday’s friendly victory over Belgium that the current coach might have slightly different ideas about how Spain should play in the next few years. Indeed, the major criticism of Del Bosque was his unwillingness to make better use of players who were not part of the victorious squads in 2010 and 2012 – such as Koke and Thiago Alcantara – with the 65-year-old accused on multiple occasions of sticking with his favourites even when they were not always the best options.
Liechtenstein did not compete at the Euros this year and are still awaiting their first appearance at a major international tournament since receiving FIFA recognition in 1976. Drawn alongside Spain, Italy, Albania, Macedonia and Israel in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup means the wait for their debut will surely continue for at least four more years.
Rene Pauritsch’s side are likely to focus on simply bettering their attempts in the previous two campaigns. They earned just two points in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup and five in qualifying for the 2016 European Championship. Their current place of 80th in the FIFA World Rankings – below Vanuatu, the Cook Islands and the Solomon Islands and only just ahead of the Seychelles, Chinese Taipei and Fiji – says everything about Liechtenstein’s lack of quality at this level.
Lopetegui has included Premier League-based players David de Gea, Adrian, Cesar Azpilicueta, David Silva, Juan Mata, Diego Costa and Nolito (pictured) in his squad for this match. Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Paco Alcacer, Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba and Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal, Lucas Vazquez, Marco Asensio and Alvaro Morata also called up.
Legendary goalkeeper Iker Casillas has been left out. Andres Iniesta is currently sidelined through injury and Aritz Aduriz, Bruno Soriano, Hector Bellerin, Pedro, Juanfran and Mikel San Jose failed to make the cut.
Liechtenstein, meanwhile, possess a group of players who are largely unknown to most football fans outside of the country. Reading midfielder Sandro Wieser and Oxford United goalkeeper Benjamin Büchel will be familiar to some English supporters, though. Striker Marcel Buchel plies his trade at Empoli in Serie A and midfield duo Sandro Wolfinger and Martin Buchel play their club football in Germany.
This will be a very comfortable evening’s work for the Spanish, who are 1/50 with the best of the online bookmakers to win this one. The question is not who will come out on top at the Estadio Reino de Leon on Monday night, but rather how big the winning margin will be. Although Spain are capable of racking up an extremely high scoreline, the likelihood is that they will ease off once they have established a comfortable lead. Lopetegui is likely to make a few changes to his team relatively early in the second half. A 4-0 win for La Roja could therefore be the best bet for this World Cup qualifying fixture, with Nolito a good choice to find the back of the net before any other player.