Despite topping their group following a dramatic 2-2 draw with Morocco last night, even the most ardent of Spanish football fans will feel that their World Cup campaign has yet to reach the high expectations that are set for the national team.
With the slow erosion of the national team’s tiki-taka prime since the retirement of the iconic duo of Xabi and Puyol, coupled with Iniesta’s waning influence on proceedings and the omission of Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas, Spanish football is facing an identity crisis shaped by an uncertainty as to the sort of team that they now are.
This loss of a strategic approach to their last two international tournaments, exacerbated by the tumultuous exit of manager Julen Lopetegui, has been the catalyst for a string of mediocre performances across the campaign.
The lack of vision has left the side calling for someone to lead from the front and drive the team forward in the competition.
The final moments of their enthralling draw with Morocco has perhaps revealed a surprise candidate for this position.
Iago Apas’s timely emergence as the last-gasp hero of the national team in their tie against Morocco could well be an indicator of how the side can overcome their malaise of their opening three fixtures.
A Conquistador once described as ‘half Messi, half monster’, his win-at-all-costs approach to the game reflects the mentality that has seen him bounce back from a turgid period of his career when on the books of Premier League side Liverpool and slowly rebuild his reputation at boyhood club Celta Vigo.
Having returned to La Liga on a permanent deal in 2015, Aspas has gone on to establish himself as one of the league’s top performers – scoring 55 league goals in 101 appearances and winning a surprise first call-up to the national team in 2016 at 30 years old.
Since then, he has scored six in 12 international appearances and establishing himself as an important member of the squad.
His relationship with fellow centre forward Diego Costa, a man who is the living embodiment of the bloody-minded approach to the game that is now spearheading the national side’s attack, could be key to the future of their campaign.
Aspas’s pace and technical ability represents the perfect foil for the strength and directness of his countryman.
Combining the gritty determination and complimentary skillsets of the two strikers may well be key to the Spanish side turning around what has been an uninspired performance level across the group stages.
The Spanish front line was once considered an irrelevance to their possession orientated style of play. Now, it is critical to the side’s success.
Aspas’s late heroics against Morocco secured Spain top spot in their groupand they now face the prospect of a clash with tournament hosts Russia in the last-16.
In a game in which his side will be unreserved favourites, Aspas’ guile in front of goal might well be the agent to fire Spain past them as they target the upper echelons of the 2018 World Cup.
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