Starwatch: Iker Casillas (33), Goalkeeper, 153 caps
One World Cup, two Euros, three UEFA Champions League and five La Liga titles later one has barely even begun to scratch the surface of the legend who goes by the name of Iker Casillas.
If strikers are venerated for their goal-scoring abilities, and if goalkeepers were to be equated to them, then Casillas strides like a colossus.
In a phenomenal 153 appearances for La Roja, Casillas has an incredible stat of letting in only 83 goals. Invert those figures and make out like a striker, then that translates to almost two goals scored per match.
In October 2008, Casillas and his deputy Pepe Reina broke the national record for the longest time spent without conceding a goal. The pair went unbeaten for 710 minutes.
With a national team built along the fault-lines of the club rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona, Casillas, along with senior statesman Xavi, is the calming influence.
When he was going through a rough patch at Real under Jose Mourinho, it was Xavi and Iniesta who spoke up for him. And when Spain begins its bid to defend the title, Casillas it will be to whom everybody gravitates.
KEEP AN EYE ON: DIEGO COSTA (25), Striker, Caps 1
There is no denying that Vicente del Bosque has taken a risk in selecting the still-recovering-from-injury Diego Costa.
But, there is also no denying the reasons that have forced the coach’s hand. Because, the player in question brings to the table what Spain had been missing of late - a genuine striker.
While Atletico Madrid and its fans would like to argue that the club’s success in 2013-14 has been due to team effort and a visionary coach, it was Costa who finished off the opponents with his strikes.
That he ran the league’s leading goal-scorer Ronaldo close is proof of that and were it not for his injuries, the script might have played out differently.
As far as La Roja are concerned, del Bosque knows that he needs someone of Costa’s abilities in the attacking third. For a team constructed around Barca’s tiki-taka playing mid-field and with his other striking options in David Villa and Fernando Torres not really the force they were, Costa is the ideal person.
If Costa is fighting fit and continues his rich goal-scoring form, del Bosque might well be the one who has the last laugh.
THE DRIVING FORCE: Vicente del Bosque
A players’ favourite, del Bosque will seek to become the first coach after Vittorio Pozzo — in the 1930s — to lift the World Cup twice. His tenure with the Spanish side has hardly witnessed any controversy as he has ably guided a supremely-talented side.
His popularity within the side can be gauged by the fact that his son Alvaro, a victim of Down’s Syndrome, is always included in the team's celebrations by the players.
Del Bosque’s achievements as coach further elevate his standing. In addition to his success with the national side, the 63-year-old has won a couple of European Cup and La Liga titles with Real Madrid.
While not necessarily sworn to a particular style of play, del Bosque has taken advantage of Barcelona’s success at club level by emphasising a possession-based approach for the national team. This has proved successful, as two successive international titles (World Cup 2010 & Euro 2012) suggest.
FIFA World Cup (1): 2010
UEFA European Championship (1):2012
Win percentage: 54.76
Vicente del Bosque prefers an array of attacking midfielders rather than a striker in an innovative 4-6-0 formation. The system allows the side to dominate the midfield and control the game by holding possession. Costa or Fabregas is expected to fill that role.
However, the Brazilians - by pressing heavily in midfield and not allowing Xavi and Iniesta to get the ball forward effectively - exposed the shortcomings of the system.
Blast from the past: Spain
The Spanish national team was never the same after Euro 2008. Of all the things that changed with that win, the most important bit was Spain’s perception of itself. Gone was all talk of a jinx or mental frailty under pressure, to the extent that when Iniesta scored late in extra-time in Johannesburg, it only seemed natural and a reflection of the order of power.
del Bosque perfected the system of play Aragones had enjoyed success with two years before, Spain’s ability to retain the ball as much a defensive tactic as an offensive one. Fatigued opponents struggled to get the ball off its supremely-gifted midfielders as Spain finally did justice to its own talent in 2010.
Before the maiden World Cup victory in South Africa, though, Spain’s recent history in the tournament, while not exactly wretched, had been one of soul-crushing exits. There were three quarterfinal defeats in 16 years: to Belgium on penalties in 1986, to a last-gasp Roberto Baggio goal in 1994, and controversially to South Korea, again in a shoot-out. All that hurt was finally overcome.
Top-scorer for Spain at the 2010 World Cup: David Villa, 5 goals.