New challenges for Spain's old faces
Iniesta and Co set for one last tilt at World Cup glory
Of all the major contenders at the World Cup, the Spaniards offer the greatest paradox. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Like a bride's checklist on her wedding day, Spain will arrive in Russia with something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.
Their new challenge essentially relies upon old faces.
When Julen Lopetegui replaced Vicente del Bosque after Euro 2016, the then 49-year-old felt like a new broom in a blue suit (yes, he was something blue and new).
An astonishing unbeaten run followed. Lopetegui has yet to experience defeat, winning 13 and drawing six of his 19 games in charge. But his expected line-up in Russia swiftly dispels any sense of a new dawn for La Furia Roja.
Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets will all be in their 30s by the time the next season comes round. At least a couple are pondering international retirement after the World Cup.
Despite the cautious optimism that surrounds Lopetegui's squad, it's either a mild concern - or a testament to the old guard's longevity - that he's so reliant upon veterans.
* All in Singapore time
- June 15: Morocco v Iran, 11pm
- June 16: Portugal v Spain, 2am
- June 20: Portugal v Morocco, 8pm
- June 21: Iran v Spain, 2am
- June 26: Spain v Morocco, 2am
- June 26: Iran v Portugal, 2am
The 51-year-old has just signed a two-year extension to tie him to La Roja until Euro 2020. It's an obvious move considering he's yet to lose a game. He's blended priceless experience with youth and moved away from the possession-based game towards a quicker pressing style.
Star players: David de Gea, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos
Best World Cup result: Winners in 2010
Performance at last World Cup: Eliminated in the group stages
This isn't the team that Lopetegui built, or even del Bosque for that matter. Luis Aragones established the creative and muscular core that prevailed on continental and global stages from 2008 to 2012.
The possession-based strategy was so uniquely Spanish that it practically lapsed into parody. By 2012, tiki-taka had become shorthand for plodding, interminable football.
The style changed, but much of the personnel hung around, a slight issue for the Spaniards.
They've struggled to replenish stocks with the impressive consistency of Germany and France.
From David de Gea to Iniesta and David Silva out wide, there's a slight whiff of Dad's Army in the camp, particularly up front.
After two years, Lopetegui hasn't entirely settled on a first-choice striker. Diego Costa is likely to get the nod, but Iago Aspas, Rodrigo Moreno and Lucas Vazquez may also feature.
Still, a bad day in the company of de Gea, Ramos, Pique, Busquets, Iniesta, Isco and Silva is a day to remember for most others nations.
With Dani Carvajal and Jordi Alba among the world's finest fullbacks, Lopetegui's "if it ain't broke" philosophy is entirely understandable.
He's borrowed the template from his predecessors, taken on the old guard, added a new pressing style of play and continues to wear the blue suit.
Like a blushing bride, Lopetegui arrives at the World Cup fully prepared.
Hopefully, his players won't run out on him.
TOMORROW: GROUP C
Portugal dour, but resolute
- Coach: Fernando Santos
- Star players: Cristiano Ronaldo, Andre Silva, Pepe
- Best World Cup result: Semi-finals (1966, 2006)
- Performance at last World Cup: Group stages
Portuguese Man of Will Cristiano Ronaldo brings the pedigree, but Fernando Santos brings the iron will.
It's a contentious point, but Portugal's unexpected triumph at Euro 2016 had as much to do with their indomitable coach as it did with their gleaming superstar (who went off injured in the final).
Santos has instilled a level of discipline rarely witnessed within a squad traditionally known for being a little flaky and disruptive in major competitions.
Since they hosted the Euro 2004 tournament, the Portuguese have always had their share of superstars, just not the requisite silverware to go with their undoubted class.
Ironically, they have more in common with the dour side that defeated them in Lisbon in the Euro 2004 Final.
Like Greece then, Portugal are now stubborn, resolute opponents. Since Santos took over in September 2014, the team have won on 20 occasions and lost only one of 24 competitive matches.
The mental fortitude is firmly in place for Russia. It's up to that bloke from Real Madrid to do the rest.
Asia’s form team Iran add firepower
- Coach: Carlos Queiroz
- Star players: Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Sardar Azmoun, Saman Ghoddos
- Best World Cup result: Group stages
- Performance at last World Cup: Group Stages
In the Belo Horizonte sunshine, Lionel Messi broke Iranian hearts. Carlos Queiroz's men were seconds away from a defiant 0-0 draw at the last World Cup, when the little Argentinian pounced.
For 91 minutes, Iran's defensive resistance had been nothing short of remarkable, but they never looked like scoring.
The game encapsulated the best and worst of Iran, a dichotomy that Queiroz has sought to address this time round.
Qualification was easy. Iran finished unbeaten and conceded a solitary goal in their final, meaningless game. But Queiroz has improved his attacking options.
Winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh and striker Sardar Azmoun are among the best in Asia, which is perhaps not a surprise for the highest-ranked team in the continent. Jahanbakhsh has proved to be a huge hit in Dutch football.
The 24-year-old finished his AZ Alkmaar season as the Eredivisie's top scorer - and he's a winger.
A season total of 21 league goals and 12 assists easily make him Iran's greatest hope of pulling off an upset. The scouts will be watching.
Morocco, tough nuts to crack
- Coach: Herve Renard
- Star players: Hakim Ziyech, Medhi Benatia, Khalid Boutaib
- Best World Cup result: Round of 16 (1986)
- Performance at last World Cup: Did not qualify
Medhi Benatia will define Morocco's identity at the World Cup. The much-travelled journeyman offers loyal, dogged commitment at centre-back.
Currently at Juventus, Benatia has also filled in at Bayern Munich, AS Roma and Udinese, a reliable pair of boots in the back four. The 31-year-old suits Herve Renard's line-up. The French coach has developed a reputation for taking African sides and making them tough to beat.
Not surprisingly, Morocco were unbeaten in their qualifying campaign (Round 3), keeping clean sheets across their six matches. Any attacking endevours will come from Hakim Ziyech, a rising star in African football.
After a fine season in the Eredivisie, where Ziyech made the most assists with 15, the Ajax midfielder has been linked with a move to the English Premier League.
With Everton particularly interested, according to reports, Russia represents the perfect shop window for Ziyech.