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Unconvincing Spain prepare for title defence
Spain will rightly take their place among the top eight seeded sides for Friday's World Cup draw in the Brazilian city of Salvador having won an unprecedented three consecutive major tournaments.
However, in contrast to the build up to their recent triumphs, doubts surround the number one ranked side in the world's chances of retaining the trophy they won for the first time in South Africa three-and-a-half years ago.
Whilst a series of unconvincing friendly results is nothing new during Vicente del Bosque's five-year spell in charge, it is La Roja's lacklustre performances in a number of recent competitive games that have caused concern.
Spain were made to look bedraggled by an energetic young Brazil side roared on by a fervent home crowd in a 3-0 win for the hosts at the Confederations Cup in June.
Whilst the pre-cursor to the main event isn't always a reliable gage -- Spain were beaten by the United States in the 2009 Confederations Cup before returning to triumph in South Africa a year later -- it was an insight as to just how tough it will be knock off Luiz Felipe Scolari's Selecao on home soil.
Moreover, the odds suggest the bookies also see Germany and Argentina as more credible candidates if Brazil are to fail to be crowned world champions for a sixth time.
Spain's qualification campaign wasn't stellar. Del Bosque's men conceded late equalisers to drop points at home to Finland and France, whilst the former Real Madrid boss criticised his side's lack of tempo as they struggled past Belarus and Georgia to seal their place in Brazil in October.
The main issue arises up front where Del Bosque has tried a number of options without hitting upon a preferred solution.
Roberto Soldado, Alvaro Negredo, Cesc Fabregas, David Villa and Michu were all used in central striking roles during qualification, but Del Bosque's search for a number nine has led to Brazilian-born Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa declaring to play for his adopted land.
Costa is still to make his Spain debut after missing the friendly matches against Equatorial Guinea and South Africa in November due to injury.
However, having turned his back on Brazil to represent the world champions, Del Bosque has admitted he would feel almost obligated to take the 25-year-old to the World Cup and with 18 goals in 19 games this season, Costa more than deserves his place in the squad.
The other concern held amongst many Spaniards is that some of their key players who have contributed so much in recent tournaments may now be past their best.
Captain Iker Casillas has been supplanted by Diego Lopez at club level, Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez have been plagued by injuries in recent times, whilst Andres Iniesta has struggled to find his top form at Barcelona this season.
However, age also brings experience and Spain will arrive in Brazil with far greater knowhow when it comes to winning major tournaments than any of the pretenders to their crown.
Moreover, as ever, there are a host of exciting youngsters pushing to be included in Del Bosque's 23-man squad.
The midfield trio of Thiago Alcantara, Asier Illarramendi and Isco, who were all part of the under-21 European Championship winning side last year, have began to shine following their big-money moves to Bayern Munich and Real Madrid respectively.
Meanwhile, another member of that Euro winning side, Atletico Madrid's Koke, has already established himself as a regular in the senior side.
Having become the eighth country to lift the World Cup four years ago, the expectation and pressure on La Roja isn't so severe as it was heading to South Africa.
But it would be brave to back against a side still replete with world class players, a manager experienced in winning on the big stage and a squad tinged with just enough youth still waiting for their chance to shine.
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