There was the Champions League in Istanbul. The FA Cup at Wembley. A third Premier League title in a row in Manchester. The treble was followed by the Nations League in the Netherlands and the Super Cup in Greece. Yet if the list of trophies won by Rodri with club and country in 2023 can only be matched by Aymeric Laporte, the Spaniard’s compatriot and former Manchester City teammate can hardly rival his influence: it was Rodri who scored the winning goal against Inter Milan in June’s Champions League final, Rodri who was named player of the finals as Spain defeated Croatia to win the Nations League.
It is tempting to brand 2023 as the year of Rodri; individual awards do not tend to favour defensive midfielders, but he may have a case for winning the Ballon d’Or. Yet an outstanding campaign has featured just the one dark night: at Hampden in March, Rodri and Spain were humbled by Scotland, beaten 2-0 in the swirling rain. The 27-year-old wore the armband but bore no responsibility, nor did he recognise what was Scotland’s greatest result in a generation. “You have to respect it but for me, it’s a bit rubbish,” he said of Scotland’s performance. His complaints of time-wasting, diving and gamesmanship were almost laughed out of the room, but Rodri was insistent: “For me, this is not football,” he said.
In many ways, Rodri’s extraordinary outburst was Scotland’s second victory of the evening. Steve Clarke’s side had not just beaten Spain, but they had gotten under their skin as well, and the sight of the former world champions sucking on sour grapes rather added to the shock result Scotland had managed to pull off. It also adds a certain edge to their return meeting, in Seville tonight, as Scotland look to become the first nation to join hosts Germany and qualify for Euro 2024. Scotland assistant coach John Carver has already admitted that another victory over Spain would be all the sweeter after Rodri’s “disrespectful” comments.
Yet Scotland would be wise to look ahead to their trip to La Cartuja with a certain amount of trepidation, too: Spain are seeking revenge and, in Rodri, Scotland have managed to make a nemesis out of a player whose powers have never felt greater. His grave error of judgement in grabbing Morgan Gibbs-White by the throat last month has sparked a title race; Manchester City lost all three games while he was suspended, to Newcastle United in the Carabao Cup, and then Wolves and Arsenal in the Premier League. Indeed, the last time Rodri lost a match when on the pitch was at Hampden six months ago – defeat to Arsenal on penalties in the Community Shield final, after a 1-1 draw, notwithstanding.
It is also unlikely that Spain will make the same mistakes as last time. A rare defeat for Rodri came in an experimental Spain side, in what was manager Luis de la Fuente’s second match in charge. Rodri was one of only two players in the side with more than 20 international appearances; De la Fuente had made eight changes from the team that beat Norway just days before, resting the Barcelona star Gavi and keeping the squad’s top scorer Alvaro Morata on the bench. Scotland ganged up on Spain and exposed them for what they were: inexperienced and underprepared.
There is little chance De la Fuente underestimates Scotland for a second time, not when Clarke’s team sits top of Group A with five wins from five (only France and Portugal can also boast 100 per cent records in Euro 2024 qualifying). Even a draw at La Cartuja would potentially leave Spain in a vulnerable position ahead of Sunday’s trip to face Norway and Erling Haaland in Oslo. Scotland, meanwhile, know qualification for Germany could be secured by the end of the week: a win would do it tonight, any other result would be fine too, unless Norway win both games this week against Cyprus and Spain.
Scotland, though, must focus on themselves. Clarke’s side were brought back down to earth by England at Hampden last month, outclassed by Jude Bellingham in the 150th anniversary match. Bellingham was exceptional but Scotland were also second-best in every department. Once again, the lack of a leading forward is a huge issue: while Lyndon Dykes and Che Adams have both made important contributions throughout Clarke’s spell, the reality is Scotland’s two main strikers are playing for clubs stuck 10th and 22nd in the Championship.
Thankfully for Clarke, in Scott McTominay, Scotland have a force who has scored more than Haaland, Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappe in Euro 2024 qualifiers – only Romelu Lukaku has managed more than his six goals so far. It shows how, under Clarke, Scotland have often been able to rise as a collective. Rodri’s comments back in March crucially missed that Scotland’s victory came through cohesion and playing as a team while making Spain look like individuals. This international window is another pivotal test: after Seville, Scotland will travel to Paris to face France. The Tartan Army have not enjoyed a double-header of such calibre in some time.
That is assuming Spain look a bit more like Spain. Since Hampden, a result that put De la Fuente under some early pressure, La Roja have clicked by scoring 16 goals in their subsequent three qualifiers, as well as lifting the Nations League title with victories over Italy and Croatia. Yet a young squad full of bright things is held together by Rodri, undisputedly now the best in the world in his position, the driving force in midfield who will look to lead the Spanish retribution. By his own admission, failure to do so would be another rare mark on the year of Rodri: Scotland, after all, are a “bit rubbish”.
Spain vs Scotland kicks off on Thursday 12 October at 7.45pm, on Viaplay Sports 1
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