Can you feel it? That almost overwhelming tingling in your stomach, the electricity in the air? After over 15 months of hell, it feels like we’re finally coming to the end.
Vaccines are being rolled out, we can hug loved ones again, the pubs are open. Christ, even the sun is out and it’s all fallen nicely in time for the Euros, a solid month of football with some crowds back in for good measure.
That tingly, electric feeling that crawls up your back and envelops your brain as you welcome the intoxicating feeling like an old friend as you toast freedom is pretty much how Boro fans used to feel whenever Adama Traore touched the ball.
You just knew that something was about to happen. Whether that was a supersonic slaloming run that left defenders in the dust, a flurry of stepovers or, when under the guidance of Tony Pulis, a crashing shot into the top corner, Adama Traore guaranteed excitement.
There was always the worry that the excitement would disappear with a wayward cross bound for the River Tees but Traore turned things up to 11.
It’s why, despite his inconsistent end product, Wolves swooped in and took him away. It’s why the Champions of Europe are chasing his signature with Thomas Tuchel marking him as one of his main targets. It’s why, even though Adama Traore is the living, breathing antitheses of tiki-taka, Luis Enrique has included him in Spain’s squad for the Euros.
While we’re all looking forward to a summer of football and things seem to be heading back to normal here thanks to the vaccine rollout, there has been a stark reminder of the situation the world remains in.
Both Sergio Busquets and Diego Llorente have tested positive for COVID-19, throwing their tournament prospects in doubt and adding an extra stumbling block for Enrique who returned last year to take charge of La Roja following a sabbatical to care of his late daughter.
The outbreak in the Spanish camp meant that their proposed friendly with Lithuania had to be played out by the Under 21 side who were heading on holiday, having wrapped up their season by reaching the semi-finals of the U21 version of the Euros.
Some of those young players may still be required if there are additional cases of the virus while Kepa Arrizabalaga, Raul Albiol, Brais Mendez, Pablo Fornals, Rodrigo, and Carlos Soler have all been called to train in a mini-bubble at the basecamp in Las Rozas as a precautionary measure.
Enrique, the former Barcelona manager, could have done without this particular headache given that Busquets was one of only a handful of players guaranteed to start in the opening game against Sweden. Only Unai Simón and Ferran Torres started Spain’s three World Cup qualifiers in March and that uncertainty highlights the stage of transition that Enrique is overseeing.
While this is still a Spain side capable of passing you to death (or boring you to death, depending on what you want to see in a match), as shown by averaging 79% possession in each of those WCQ games, they’re not even in the same stratosphere as the all-conquering teams of 2008-2012.
One of those games, a 1-1 draw with Greece, saw Spain complete 850 passes but only manage two shots on target. There’s no way that would have happened with Iniesta, Xavi and David Villa on the pitch. The 6-0 hammering of Germany, led by Ferran Torres, will be eulogised by TV pundits but they won’t point out that 3 days prior the same team drew with 10 man Switzerland.
Enrique has at least settled on his goalkeeper for the tournament with David De Gea being replaced by a younger model for both his club and country. Athletic Bilbao’s Unai Simón has started all 7 games since making his debut against the Netherlands in November.
There should be no concern that he’ll be replaced if Spain end up going to penalties later in the tournament either – De Gea hasn’t saved one in his last 40.
Recent convert Aymeric Laporte will lead a defence that will be without Sergio Ramos for the first time at a tournament since Euro 2004. Villareal’s Pau Torres will likely get the nod ahead of Cesar Azpilicueta to play next to Laporte in Spain’s back four. Enrique called the pairing of Laporte and Torres “sensational” after the friendly draw with Portugal. They’ll have to be to make up for Ramos’s exclusion.
Another nod to the changing of the Spanish guard is that Valencia captain José Gayà is set to edge out Jordi Alba for the left-back spot. Alba, who scored in the Euro 2012 final and remains one of the finest full-backs of this generation, has had a good season for Barcelona but is 32 years old. Midfielder Marcos Llorente will be pushed into a makeshift right-back role with Dani Carvajal deemed not fit enough for selection.
If he produces a negative test, Sergio Busquets could be back as soon as the second group game against Poland to supervise the death by a thousand passes midfield factory, but until then Manchester City’s Rodri will be entrusted with the most important role in Enrique’s 4-3-3/4-1-4-1. Long heralded as the heir to Busquet’s throne, Rodri will be desperate to make the most of the opportunity.
Injuries to Jordan Henderson and Fabinho meant that Liverpool fans didn’t see the best of Thiago this season, with the midfielder forced into a deeper role, so the Scousers will be looking forward to watching their man in his more favoured Number 8 position.
Busquet’s absence may mean that Koke is favoured alongside Thiago, with the man who lifted La Liga possibly being named captain, yet the stage is set for an 18 year old from Barcelona to light up the tournament if given the opportunity.
Pedri, who was playing second division football in Spain twelve months ago, has been a revelation for Barca since being introduced into the team and is the key building block for the rebuilds at both his club and national team.
Pedri’s fellow Barca teen hotshot Ansu Fati is another El Clásico casualty after undergoing multiple surgeries on a torn meniscus since November. That means that Ferran Torres, the mastermind of the decimation of Germany, will be on the right hand side of Spain’s front line. Torres is a cracking outside tip for Player of the Tournament with the City wideman bound to be at the heart of everything good about this Spanish team.
In true Traore fashion, the man with the largest thighs in football will be Spain’s “break in case of emergency” option from the bench if Enrique finds himself in the need for some shock and awe.
On the left, Real Sociedad’s Mikel Oyarzabal is in a training camp winner takes all battle with Leipzig’s Dani Olmo. Oyarzabal has hit double figures for goals in the last four seasons for Sociedad and is credited with 25 assists in the past two years for Los Txuri-Urdin.
Olmo, a graduate of Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, is one of Enrique’s favourites having featured in every game since the manager returned. He set up 10 goals in Bundesliga as Leipzig briefly threatened Bayern Munich’s monopoly on the title and he may end up at Bayern after Phillip Lahm publically declared his admiration for the winger.
Whoever is opposite Torres on the flanks for Spain will be tasked with providing ammunition for Alvaro Morata. The former Chelsea flop is a different animal for his country, hitting 19 in 40 games which is nothing to be sniffed at on the international stage.
Morata is still more than capable of missing a few sitters, though moving back to Juventus looks to have instilled a newfound confidence in the striker. His 11 goals and 10 assists in 32 Serie A games were one of the only bright spots as the Old Lady of Turin relinquished the title.
Gerard Moreno will be Morata’s understudy at the tournament and the man who scored in Villareal’s Europa League final win against Man United is coming off a season of a lifetime, with only Lionel Messi bettering his 23 goals in La Liga.
Spain benefit from being one of the “host” nations for this Euros and will play all three group games in Seville at Estadio La Cartuja de Sevilla. A group containing Sweden, Poland and Slovakia should be more than manageable for La Roja although they do find themselves on the tougher side of the draw if things go according to plan and they reach the knockout rounds.
Depending on the results of the other groups, Spain could find themselves in a quarter-final bottleneck of superpowers, with Portugal, Germany, England or France awaiting. This wouldn’t have phased Spain teams of old, but Enrique’s men may not have the experience or star power to allow the death by a thousand passes factory to run smoothly enough against the better sides.
In that case, they might just need to inject a little excitement into their surgical approach. They might need a bit of Adama Traore magic.
Group Matches (all at Estadio La Cartuja de Sevilla)
Monday 14th June 8pm Spain vs. Sweden
Saturday 19th June 8pm Spain vs. Poland
Wednesday 23rd June 5pm Spain vs. Slovakia
Goalkeepers: David de Gea (Manchester United), Unai Simón (Athletic), Robert Sánchez (Brighton & Hove Albion)
Defenders: José Gayà (Valencia), Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Pau Torres (Villarreal), Aymeric Laporte (Manchester City), Eric García (Manchester City), Diego Llorente (Leeds United), César Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Marcos Llorente (Atlético)
Midfielders: Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Rodri Hernández (Manchester City), Pedri (Barcelona), Thiago Alcántara (Liverpool), Koke (Atlético), Fabián Ruiz (Napoli)
Forwards: Dani Olmo (Leipzig), Mikel Oyarzabal (Real Sociedad), Gerard Moreno (Villarreal), Álvaro Morata (Juventus), Ferran Torres (Manchester City), Adama Traoré (Wolves), Pablo Sarabia (Paris)
Photo Credits: The Independent, AS English, The Athletic, 90 Min, Football Espana