DOHA, Qatar — The last four times Bayern Munich have faced Barcelona in the Champions League, the aggregate score has been 11-0 for the Bundesliga side. From there, you could draw the conclusion that Spain have no chance in their World Cup clash against Germany on Sunday.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (US)
Why? Because, among these Bayern teams, German coach Hansi Flick can field Manuel Neuer, Josh Kimmich, Serge Gnabry, Jamal Musiala, Leon Goretzka, Leroy Sane, Niklas Sule and Thomas Muller at Al Bayt Stadium. And because in Luis Enrique’s squad this weekend you’ll find Jordi Alba, Eric Garcia, Sergio Busquets, Ansu Fati, Pedri, Gavi, Alejandro Balde and Ferran Torres – all of whom have been beaten by power, threat and German muscles over the past two seasons.
These four matches were dramatic and clear displays of power, precision, speed, height and sporting aggression. And we don’t even count Bayern’s 8-2 victory over the Blaugrana in the 2020-21 quarter-finals. It started to feel like German football was actively trying to put an end to the trickier, possession-based and technically delicious Spanish art.
The cream of Spain have been so thoroughly demolished, at club level, that you can bet Pedri, Gavi, Busquets, Alba et al knew precisely how Costa Rica felt when they left Al Thumama’s pitch. Wednesday – beaten 7-0. After such a magnificent effervescence of La Roja, against opponents once renowned for their defensive organization, two questions immediately arise: can this form be transposed to the crucial Group E match against Germany? And, should their fans worry that newfound complacency and arrogance could corrode Spain’s readiness for a titanic battle?
Last question first. I was in the players’ tunnel, working, when Luis Enrique’s victorious team left the field. No shouting, no cheering, no raucous celebrations – if you hadn’t seen the game or the scoreboard you would have thought it was half time with things evened out at 0-0. Not a hint of excessive exuberance or bluster. Tense faces, earnest manner — the atmosphere was: Job done, what’s next?
One of Luis Enrique’s immediate analytical reactions was to say: “Listen, we might be beaten in the next game, but in no way will it be because we ‘slacked off’ after this result.” It is also worth believing. The 52-year-old Asturian has woven a magic spell over his staff. Spanish footballers are convinced of his plan, submit to his rules, are imbued with his philosophy “attack, press, ambition”. In fact, you whisper, they’re really having fun while residing at Qatar University.
Whether Costa Rica’s brutal destruction says anything specific about Spain overcoming the huge physical, athletic and behavioral advantages that Bayern’s German core have recently imposed on Barca’s Spanish contingent is another matter. Each match is a new universe of details, mentality, form, luck and tactics.
But one thing is clear: the thrilling, optimistic and evangelical message that has been coming out of the Spanish training HQ since their arrival last week spoke the truth. I will share some of the statements made to us officially and unofficially:
“We are a bunch of brothers.”
“The atmosphere is spectacular.”
“We are a group of friends having fun and shooting for each other.”
“There’s no way this group is letting everyone down…”
I cannot stress enough the shimmering buzz of ambition, commitment, attitude, determination.
Now, do all of these sentiments negate the fact that Spain are a young, raw group that lack an outright, punishing goalscorer in the style of Fernando Torres, David Villa or even Raul in his day? Not by themselves. But not only are the majority of Spain’s players in fine form at just the right time, they look fresh, fast and really appreciate how their coach gives them the freedom to go out and play beautifully.
– 2022 World Cup: News and files | Schedule | Teams
It’s a burning memory for me that in the days leading up to Spain’s 2010 World Cup victory, Xavi stopped the FIFA referees’ briefing which was led by Horacio Elisondo and insisted: “Enough all of this about how you’ll enforce the rules — go tell Sepp Blatter the pitches are poor, the grass needs to be cut and watered and he’s giving a premium to boring, defensive football.”
This version of La Roja weren’t just in South Africa to win, they wanted to attack, entertain, make the game better. This year’s group aspires to that too.
Vicente del Bosque’s side won the 2010 World Cup with the lowest goal tally in history, battling their way through slow and choppy playing surfaces and usually playing against defensive rivals or rogue (the semi-final opponents excluding Germany.) At the time, Germany coach Joachim Low loved Spanish verve, technicality, vision and passing passion. German football in the years that followed maintained its taste for big, tough, aggressive and fast footballers, but relentlessly added better technical skills, better tactical appreciation. At club level, at least, borrowing from the Spanish model, while blending it with traditional Teutonic values, has worked wonders.
Cut back to today and Spain are back in that nascent state of wanting to play with thrills, skill, bold and relentless passing speed. Luis Enrique dropped them. They all sincerely believe, as Xavi said vehemently 12 years ago, that the World Cup should be a place of entertainment, of extravagance, of elegance… a place where dreamers can dream and where inspiration is injected into children watching all over the world. Most other teams seem happy to bet on no worse than a 0-0 and hope for a lucky goal or two late in the game. This attitude would make the main Spanish players vomit in disgust.
What was interesting in the way La Roja Costa Rica was treated the way that even with three, four or five goals past Keylor Navas they kept going for the throat. Conserving no energy, no subconscious foot on the gas and no coasting the last 15 minutes. Spain continued to demonstrate precisely the ambition and total commitment to attack that Luis Enrique promised. If they lead 1-0 with five minutes remaining in a big game later in this tournament, expect them to do the exact same thing.
“Don’t get me wrong, our job is to win so I’m not going to dismiss a win where we didn’t play well,” he told me with a laugh the other day. “But we will never die of fear, if we ever have to go down it will be with ambition, on the front foot and trying to beat whoever we come across.”
I love this kind of talk, especially from those who walk next. Have you watched them? Didn’t they ignite an otherwise too cautious, too boring World Cup? Now, however, comes another kind of test.
Germany is the proverbial wounded animal. Twice more. If they lose on Sunday, there is a good chance they will be left out of a World Cup group stage for the second time in four years. Total and complete disaster for Die Mannschaft. Plus, they’ll naturally be looking for cold-blooded revenge for the 6-0 thrashing they won against Spain the last time these two sides met in the UEFA Nations League in November 2020. In fact, you hope Flick has baked up some lovely Black Forest Cakes or another Bavarian delight to thank Luis Enrique before the game. That six-goal humiliation from Low’s Germany at Sevilla two years ago was the final straw for him and the 2014 World Cup-winning manager announced his retirement from the job a few months later. Flick got the job. Now it’s all inclusive.
Another thing that stood out in Spain’s heavenly seven against Costa Rica was how their coach is in the zone. Marco Asensio has been treated as a spare at Real Madrid this season, out of contract in June and with just three starts in a possible 21 appearances so far. Still, he is named Spain’s first-choice centre-forward and scores. Torres, overwhelmed by Ousmane Dembele’s demand to play on the right at Barcelona, returns to his natural position and scores twice. Balde – 18, a member of Barcelona’s B team as recently as August and called up by Spain as a last-minute replacement – arrives and helps create a goal with a sprint and dribble that kept the two thirds of the field. Welcome to the World Cup, kid. Dani Olmo, after a few months of brutal injury, starts in place of Ansu Fati and not only scores, but gets the crucial opener and also provides an assist. And Nico Williams, alone in the squad since September, is brought in, passes the vital goal to win in Portugal and reach the semi-final of the Nations League then against Costa Rica and sets up Carlos Soler’s goal (all except one). La RojaAll five substitutes for , scored or created a goal against Costa Rica.)
This all adds up to the truth that, at the moment, the Spanish coach seems to possess the Midas touch. When the teams go out to the Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday, Germany will be thinking: they can do what Bayern did to Barca, while the Spanish players will all stick to the mantra: ‘In Luis Enrique we trust’.
Whoever wins is guaranteed to be precisely the kind of open, attacking and hopefully thrilling competition that this bizarre World Cup needs.