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Is Spain 'tournament-ready'?

Spain
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Ahead of the World Cup, Lopetegui and Spain must get 'tournament-ready'

Last month, Sid Lowe discussed Spain's standing among the world's best international teams.
Last month, Sid Lowe discussed Spain's standing among the world's best international teams.

What exactly do you want from a team that looked flat, floundering and fractured at Euro 2016?

How about a change of coach, new players, a resounding group win, over a year since their last defeat and a thrashing of your bete noire en route to Russia?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 2010 World Cup winners and potential 2018 champions: Spain.

Since Italy toyed with their defence of the European Championship and then ripped it from the hands of Vicente Del Bosque's men, Spain have won 11 and drawn three of their 14 games.

Del Bosque's successor, Julen Lopetegui, is a meticulous, serious man; he'll be pouring over every minute detail to give his talented footballers whatever chance he possibly can to win in Moscow next July.

What's on his agenda? Here are five sure-fire items.

1. Don't get carried away

Albeit there were groans when it was realised that the perpetual thorn in Spain's side - Italy -- were to be the major obstacle to qualification, especially after several tumultuous battles over the last decade including that Euro round-of-16 game in Paris, this group fell perfectly for La Roja's new breed and their new coach.

I'd argue that you can better evaluate the confidence, strategy, form and urgency of Lopetegui's side when you look at their two group matches against Italy, as well as friendly wins in Belgium and France and even, if you want, in their determination not to be beaten by England at Wembley despite being 2-0 down with a minute remaining.

But Spain's Basque coach, for all the noises he made about taking Albania, Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein seriously in qualifying, will be crystal clear that the test will be tenfold in Russia.

2. Good things come at a Costa

Spain have been scoring freely since the summer 2016 and netted 36 goals in 10 qualifiers. Partly that's because there has been a new wave of creative influences who believe that they are now central and, partly, it is because the midfield is functioning like clockwork.

But it is also because 15 different players have hit the net since Lopetegui took over, with the leading scorers being, in order, David Silva, Alvaro Morata, Isco and Diego Costa.

Just how important it is to have Costa as a backup No. 9, i.e. an outright centre-forward, is now a very legitimate question. His recent self-imposed exile, while battling with Chelsea, suggested he seemed to care little for Spain's testing autumn.

Will Lopetegui, and more importantly Costa's fellow players, hold that against him? Potentially, yes. Moreover, Morata is now unquestionably first choice and his fervour for the national team, unlike that of Costa, is not in question.

Should Morata, Rodrigo, Silva, Isco, Marco Asensio, Iago Aspas and Aritz Aduriz all stay fit and scoring goals, Atletico's newly repatriated striker will have to have himself quite a six months between January and June if he wants a second -- probably final -- shot at winning a World Cup.

Spain breezed through World Cup qualifying and look set to challenge for the trophy in Russia next year.

3. Location, location, location

During a tournament, there is little time to heal, to sleep properly, to rest cramped legs and minds. There is too little solitude and constant exposure to delays or mishaps; all in all, not a millimetre of time for moping or self-pity.

Every team must find a balance between where they live, where they train, where they play their matches and how they get between those sites. In 2014, Brazil was daunting, the geographical and transit demands damaged the defending champions ... and Russia is roughly twice as big a land mass. Spain, generally, like to pick one base far from the madding crowd and ensure that it has two or three first-class playing surfaces. They also love to have a private airstrip nearby. And if they are not happy with any aspect of their logistics, they get things changed.

Examples? At Euro 2012, when there wasn't an adequate hotel/pitch combination near to Gdansk in Poland, one region was told that their existing facilities would only benefit from the business and prestige of having the world champions training there if a new sports-hotel was built.

Hotel built, tournament won.

Two years earlier, when the runway at a former military airport near the Potchefstroom sports complex in South Africa was too short for Spain's jumbo jet to land or take off, the Spanish FA told the local council that, unless they spent €25,000 of their own money to extend it, the reigning European champions would take their [lucrative] business elsewhere.

Runway built, tournament won.

During their run of three straight championships, which began almost a decade ago, Spain regularly played in a tight geographical area: Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna in Austria in 2008, in or around Johannesburg in South Africa two years later and three group games in Gdansk during Euro 2012. The energy saved was expended upon winning.

As good as they were, fortune also favoured Spain logistically and geographically. Whether it's going to be feasible to pick just one base camp in Russia is a very difficult question. But it's from such small acorns that mighty oaks grow.

4. Discover the special character that brings success

During Euro 2008 Luis Aragones made his squad laugh. Don't get me wrong, he inspired them, he trained them ferociously and he led them, but he also made them laugh.

Whether it was by criticising German opponents, mispronouncing or making up names in team briefings, even teasing Joan Capdevila, who thought there was a ghost in his room, Spain's manager broke the tension.

When Dani Guiza missed a penalty in an excruciating quarterfinal shootout against Italy, Iker Casillas jogged past his tearful teammate, who he didn't really know that well, and shouted: "Don't worry Dani, I'll save the next one." He did.

Two years later, Cristiano Ronaldo's Real Madrid teammates in Del Bosque's squad cooked up a scheme to put the Portugal forward off his stride before their round-of-16 match in Cape Town kicked off.

After Spain lost their opening match against Switzerland, Alvaro Arbeloa yelled in the dressing room: "This isn't where it ends! This is where it begins!" Bland words they might look on the page but they were acknowledged by the squad to be a rallying point. Moreover, the "war cabinet" of senior players threw their support behind Sergio Busquets, whose inclusion had been criticised at home; he stayed in the team and Spain won the tournament.

By 2012 the players overruled Del Bosque by insisting that, instead of flying back and forward to their Gniewino base in northern Poland, the knockout stages required them to find a base in Ukraine. They got their way and won the tournament, fizzing past a tired Italy in Kiev.

But these examples featured many players who have now moved on from international football. The new brigade -- Morata, Thiago Alcantara, David De Gea, Koke, Rodrigo, Asier Illaramendi, Isco, Asensio and Dani Carvajal, perhaps Costa too -- need to prove that they have that right stuff.

What's needed is the special timing, the special unity, the special intelligence and the special words that take adversity, tiredness or unhappiness and transform it into enough strength to win the trophy.

5. The challenge facing the manager

Lopetegui has won tournaments before, but nothing like this. The former Barcelona and Real Madrid goalkeeper had a playing career that was dogged by misfortune and setbacks. That can't repeat in his managerial life if he is to be successful.

Running a tournament is often a thankless task for a manager and history is full of examples of tension within squads undermining chances. Every coach has to raise his game to the extent that other nations end up having to cope with such slings and arrows.

Tournaments are won on and off the pitch and, while Lopetegui is the architect of Spain's revival, he's yet to live for six or seven weeks with this group and deal with the inevitable bumps that such a set-up brings.

Over to you coach; are you up to the task?

Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.

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