At one end of the pitch things seem blatantly obvious for Spain coach, Vicente del Bosque. Even for a national team manager who rarely ventures beyond his borders to look at players he will know that David de Gea’s form for Manchester United is better than Iker Casillas’ for Porto and that was reinforced on Thursday when De Gea was outstanding in Spain’s draw with Italy.
Only sentiment stands in Del Bosque’s way of making the changing of the guard official.
But at the other end of his team things are far less clear as he mulls over his selection for Spain’s last friendly against Rumania on Sunday ahead of picking his 23-man squad for France. Just as his loyalty to Casillas is making it tough for him to declare De Gea the new number one, so he also feels he owes something to Diego Costa.
The Chelsea forward was never made any promises when he switched allegiance from Brazil in 2013 but it was clear when he met with Del Bosque at Spain’s Las Rozas headquarters for their famous lunch on the outskirts of Madrid back when he was still playing for Atletico Madrid; he understood he would be first choice centre-forward if he turned his back on Brazil.
The Costa experiment has not worked. Del Bosque admits that he would have liked the now-Chelsea forward to have scored more goals and he has failed to fit Spain's way of playing. Leading the line for La Roja is a difficult job. Teams defend deep against them and there is little space to run in behind – something Costa does better than most.
On Thursday against Italy Athletic Bilbao forward, Aritz Aduriz, 35 years and 42 days young, scored with his first chance of the night. Alvaro Morata impressed playing slightly to the left of the main striker. And with Paco Alcacer, the Valencia forward, Spain’s top scorer from qualifying, it now looks possible that Costa could miss out.
"Aduriz did what he had to do," said Del Bosque on Thursday in Udine. "He took the chance that he had but more than that he showed that he had adapted perfectly to the way we play."
Aduriz was buoyant after his goal. "It is easy to build an understanding with these players because they are so good," he said.
They were the words of a man who has spent most of his career in hardworking sides short on individual brilliance.
He is less likely to play on Sunday as Del Bosque looks to change his starting XI to give everyone in the squad more or less the same playing time. Celta Vigo’s Nolito and Alcacer may well begin together up front as Spain stick with a 4-4-2 formation that becomes a 4-1-4-1 when they lose possession.
After De Gea’s fine performance against Italy he will hand the gloves to either Casillas or to Sergio Rico, the Sevilla keeper who is Spain’s third choice.
Whoever starts they will come into a side that is finding it far easier to keep goals out than to score them. Spain have now gone 692 minutes without conceding. Another 23 minutes without a goal in Cluj on Sunday and they will have matched their previous record.
Whoever he plays in goal for Del Bosque in Spain’s first game at the Euros against the Czech Republic, the manager is supremely confident about a back four that includes Atletico Madrid’s steely right-back Juanfran, Barcelona’s lightning quick Jordi Alba and the odd couple central defensive pairing of Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos and Barcelona’s Gerard Pique.
Those four, protected by the world’s best defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets, will make Spain a tough team to score against in France as Spain look to win an unprecedented third straight European Championship.
Rumania will make for nostalgic opponents in Cruj. Spain were beaten by them in Cadiz 10 years ago in what was turning into a disastrous European Championship qualification campaign. The team had just been beaten by Northern Ireland and Sweden, and coach Luis Aragones was under pressure to resign. No one could have imagined then that Spain were about to set off on a run of 35 games without defeat after that Rumania loss, winning the 2008 European Championship on the way.Reuse content