Spain have a phalanx of cultured midfielders (as ever), but they also have questions to answer in both defence and attack in terms of who their best XI is.
Aymeric Laporte hasn’t started at centre-back for Spain since March (mostly due to injury), but he is widely expected to be a key figure in the Spanish defence – possibly forming an all-left-footed central partnership with Pau Torres or else playing alongside Eric Garcia. There is also the situation of left-back with Alejandro Balde a late call-up to the squad, replacing Jose Gaya.
Gaya had been tipped by many to be Spain’s starting left-back, a more mobile option than Jordi Alba, but suffered a light ankle sprain in training last week. The Valencia man wasn’t expected to be out for too long, news that was confirmed by later tests – which reportedly would only rule him out for 10 days at maximum. That would have been enough time for Gaya to return for Spain and help in the latter stages of the tournament, but Luis Enrique opted to send the left-back home.
And the Spain boss has now explained his decision, admitting he couldn’t take the risk at left-back.
“I have to make decisions. If it were down to my heart, he would still be here, but I have to take those decisions head on,” he told reporters.
“It was an injury of 10 to 15 days, and he couldn’t play two games. With the responsibility of the coach of the whole country, I have to do the best for the team.
“Left-back is the only position I can’t wait for anyone. There is no one who can adapt to what we ask for. If it were in another position, the player would be here. But they are two specific guys that have the characteristics to play there. Jose Gaya is a phenomenon, a guy who I get on with brilliantly.
“I feel it in my soul, I have to put the team before my feelings.”
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Spain v Costa Rica provides a simple test for the 2010 World Cup winners, in theory. It’s certainly the simplest in a group that also includes Germany and Japan.
Costa Rica will come and sit in a low block, and it will be up to Spain to unlock a defence that conceded just eight goals in 14 qualification games. Pedri is among the pool of cultured midfielders and will be key to this aim, having played the most through balls in La Liga this season (15).
The Costa Rican side will look very familiar to regular World Cup viewers. There are still a number of players from that wonderful quarter-final run in 2014, when the Central American side finished top of a group containing Italy, England, and Uruguay. These include Keylor Navas, Bryan Ruiz, Joel Campbell and Oscar Duarte.
Their pace on the counter-attack and direct play could cause teams problems and, as such, Costa Rica shouldn’t be underestimated. Spain are obviously heavy favourites for this match, but the defensive record of Costa Rica and the way Enrique’s side are likely to try and break that down with lots of probing and possession sets this game up to potentially be a frustrating exercise for La Roja.
Spain have only reached the World Cup semi-finals twice in their history, most recently in 2010 when they went on to win the title. Costa Rica meanwhile are playing their third consecutive World Cup tournament – the nation’s longest-ever such streak.
Ferran Torres edges out Morata as the most frequent shooter in the Spanish squad, with 3.49 per 90 as opposed to 3.32. Torres was also Spain’s top-scorer in qualifying, scoring twice as many goals as any teammate (four). Overall he has 13 goals in 31 Spain appearances, including a hat-trick against next week’s opponents Germany.
Midfield prodigies Pedri and Gavi could become Spain’s youngest-ever players to appear at the World Cup finals, breaking the record held by Cesc Fabregas (19 years and 41 days). Gavi would hold the record outright.
There is a 19-year gap between Sunderland’s Jewison Bennette and former Fulham star Bryan Ruiz in the Costa Rican attack. Los Ticos also won their last six Concacaf qualification matches to sneak into the play-off, where they beat New Zealand to get into the tournament. Seven clean sheets in their last ten matches demonstrate their defensive capabilities.