Eight months and 24 days ago, when Iker Casillas lifted his and Spain’s third major international trophy in a row after La Roja had dismantled Italy 4-0 in the European Championship final, Spain seemed to inhabit a footballing planet unknown to the rest of us.
The tiki-taka that had become Barca’s raison d’etre at club level, was mastered and perfected by the national side who, after finally shaking off the tag of perennial underachievers in Vienna four years earlier, had completed the most impressive of hat-tricks on the international stage.
Fast forward nearly nine months and the invincible armada faces a tricky trip to over the Pyrenees, knowing that defeat against France will almost surely mean having to endure the ignominy of a playoff in a bid to defend their title in Brazil in 2014.
Having scored 12 goals and conceded just one on their way to triumph in Kiev, Spain began their qualifying campaign in a somewhat more sombre tone, Roberto Soldado’s late winner proving enough to win in Georgia, before a glimpse of the splendour of old as they demolished Belarus 4-0 in Minsk.
A late equaliser from Olivier Giroud thwarted Spain’s march, their misery compounded by an unexpected draw at home against Finland on Saturday, which leaves them two points behind the leaders France.
It hasn’t, by any stretch of imagination, been a vintage season for Spanish football. Domestically Barca’s seemingly irresistible cavalcade in La Liga has only partly masquerade a strangely – for their extremely high standards – stuttering form in Europe, where only in their 4-0 romp of AC Milan have Barca resembled the force of old.
Injuries to Pique, Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta haven’t helped Barcelona or Spain as both have suffered the absence of some of their talismans off the pitch as much as on it.
Not that the Spanish internationals hailing from Madrid have enjoyed a better season. Following their triumph in La Liga last year, Real have gone back to familiar territory, one characterised by alleged intestine fights, which have seen Iker Casillas, captain for both club and country, unceremoniously told to sit on the bench, before he too succumbed to an injury.
Spain of course wouldn’t have been in trouble had FIFA not revoked the right to automatic qualification for the defending champions in 2006 but, as it stands, they could emulate Uruguay in being the only defending champions to miss out on a World Cup – the South Americans decided against traveling to Italy in 1934, a tit-for-tat measure after the opening edition had been snubbed by European teams.
Obviously, the talent at Vicente Del Bosque’s disposal is such that Spain can still turn things around, maybe starting tonight in Paris, where they will face a France side dogged by the usual political skirmishes but, much like Barcelona, the impression is that Spain’s once resplendent armour has lost some of its brilliance.
Spain’s tiki-taka no longer dazzles the continent into submission and, when it does finally unlock opposing defences, without a prolific striker up-front, Spain are left to rue a host of missed chances.
David Villa may have made his long awaited return from injury in style for Barcelona, but the former Valencia man isn’t a traditional centre-forward, and neither is his team-mate Pedro. Alvaro Negredo is yet to reproduce the fine form he’s shown for Sevilla on the international stage, while Fernando Torres enjoys the same lack form for his national team that has characterised his spell at Chelsea.
Vicente del Bosque’s winning formula last summer didn’t include a traditional forward either, but the stellar form of Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Ramos and Jordi Alba meant he didn’t need one.
Spain have spent their years of unprecedented success repelling attempts to be dethroned, both at club and international level, and have come out on top.
Whether the pressure of being so much better than everybody else and therefore expected to deliver at every opportunity has got to them, it’s hard to say but, for the first time in almost five years, Spain will have their backs dangerously close to the wall tomorrow night.
Not that we should expect them to crumble, for the last time we dared to doubt them they put four past Italy in that glorious summer night in Kiev.
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