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Spain building confidence for title defense

Updated: 2014-03-05 09:05
By Agence France-Presse in Madrid ( China Daily)

Spain will open its defense of the World Cup the same way it ended the 2010 tournament in South Africa - by facing the Netherlands.

Their showdown is set for June 13 in Salvador, Brazil.

The presence of highly-rated Chile alongside Australia as Spain's other opponents in Group B, and the prospect of a last-16 clash against Brazil for the side that finishes second in the group, makes it imperative for the defending champion to get off to a good start.

When the draw took place in December there was an initial air of pessimism around Spain's chances to continue its historic run of winning three major championships in succession.

A 3-0 loss to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final last year was still fresh as Spain plodded through qualification, scoring just 14 goals in eight games.

However, as winter turns to spring there is growing optimism there could yet be enough left in La Roja's golden generation to become the first side to retain the trophy since Brazil in 1962.

The principal issues that plagued Vicente del Bosque's team during 2013 now appear to have worked themselves out.

Firstly, any doubts surrounding captain Iker Casillas' position as starting goalkeeper have been eased.

Despite not playing in La Liga, Casillas went nine games and more than 950 minutes without conceding in the Copa del Rey and Champions League until he was finally beaten by Klass-Jan Huntelaar's spectacular consolation volley as Real Madrid thrashed Schalke 6-1 last week.

The lack of form and fitness shown by the heroes of previous triumphs in David Villa and Fernando Torres have been compensated by Diego Costa's switch of allegiance from Brazil to his adopted land, while Alvaro Negredo's stunning start to life with Manchester City has also made him a strong candidate to lead the line come the summer.

Between them Costa and Negredo have notched 50 goals this season and should add a directness and physical presence to Spain's play that was missing even in winning the European Championships with Cesc Fabregas as a false nine in 2012.

Costa has yet to make his debut for Spain, but was included by del Bosque in a 22-man squad for Wednesday's friendly at home to Italy.

The absence of Torres, Villa and other World Cup winners in Juan Mata and Fernando Llorente from that squad only served to underline the depth of talent still available to del Bosque.

Barcelona continues to be the most represented club among del Bosque's latest squad, with seven of the 22 coming from the Spanish champion.

And Barca boss Gerardo Martino's rotation policy could also prove beneficial to Spain come June and July.

Martino has insisted on limiting the likes of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta's minutes to ensure there is no repeat of the 7-0 aggregate thrashing a jaded Barca suffered at the hands of Bayern Munich in last season's Champions League semifinals.

In Iniesta's case in particular, the rest accumulated appears to have worked as he has hit his best form in recent weeks as Barca's bid for trophies on three fronts reaches a decisive stage.

Finally, the performance of the Spanish sides in Europe has also stoked confidence.

Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid all won away from home in the first legs of their Champions League last 16 ties, and while their progression in the competition will mean more games for a number of key players, it also demonstrates Spain's best remain difficult to knock off.

(China Daily 03/05/2014 page23)