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WORLD CUP: Last stand for stars of Spain’s golden generation

June 11, 2018
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In this photo taken on Saturday, June 9, 2018 Spain'a team pose prior to a friendly soccer match between Spain and Tunisia in Krasnodar, Russia. (AP Photo)

MADRID (AP) — After recent struggles at major tournaments, the remaining stars of Spain’s golden generation could be facing a last stand at the World Cup.

Winning two European Championships and a first World Cup, the Spanish were unstoppable from 2008 to 2012.

But they began to falter at the 2014 World Cup, failing to advance from the group stage, and were eliminated from Euro 2016 in the round of 16. There were doubts new coach Julen Lopetegui could even secure qualification for this year’s World Cup before Spain cruised through a group that included Italy.

Lopetegui successfully blended emerging talent with the experience provided by veterans to qualify for an 11th straight World Cup.

Here’s a closer look at the Spain team:

COACH

Lopetegui was chosen as Vicente Del Bosque’s successor in 2016 after winning trophies of his own with Spain — at the under-19 and under-21 editions of the European Championships.

But the former goalkeeper’s experience coaching at the top level was limited to a couple of lackluster seasons with Porto.

The critics who questioned Lopetegui’s credentials were silenced when the mild-mannered coach took Spain on a 19-game unbeaten run.

GOALKEEPERS

Calls for the return of Iker Casillas were quickly subdued as David de Gea impressed with Manchester United and the national team.

Casillas was relegated to the bench for the first time at Euro 2016 and was left out of the squad altogether for Russia.

Lopetegui picked Athletic Bilbao’s Kepa Arrizabalaga and Napoli’s Pepe Reina as the reserve goalkeepers.

DEFENDERS

This is likely to be the last World Cup for Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, whose central defensive partnership formed the bedrock of successes in major tournaments.

The 31-year-old Pique plans to stop playing for Spain after the World Cup, and there is a chance the 32-year-old Ramos will join him in international retirement.

They have been playing together in Spain’s defense since the 2010 World Cup, when Ramos still played at right back.

Completing the back line will be Jordi Alba, Pique’s teammate at Barcelona, on the left and Dani Carvajal, Ramos’ teammate at Madrid, on the right.

MIDFIELDERS

Andres Iniesta will be 34 when the World Cup starts and it’s likely to mark the masterful playmaker’s farewell to the international stage.

With impeccable passes and smart ball control, Iniesta continues to control the midfield just as he did while winning three major tournaments. Only his physical condition is a concern as age catches up with the player who scored the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final against the Netherlands.

Sergio Busquets, Thiago Alcantara and Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion are assured of places in the squad for Russia, and the attacking midfielders will include Francisco “Isco” Alarcon, Marco Asensio, Saul Niguez and David Silva.

FORWARDS

Lopetegui had doubts over his strikers, calling up 10 different players in the position in two years.

Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa, Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas and Valencia’s Rodrigo made the 23-man squad, while Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata was dropped.

Napoli’s Jose Callejon and Atletico’s Victor “Vitolo” Machin also won’t make it to Russia.

GROUP GAMES

Spain, which will be based in Krasnodar, opens against European champion Portugal on June 15. The team will then face Iran on June 20 and finish the group stage against Morocco on June 25.

FULL SQUAD

Goalkeepers: David De Gea (Manchester United), Pepe Reina (Napoli), Kepa Arrizabalaga (Athletic Bilbao)

Defenders: Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Nacho Monreal (Arsenal), Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid), Nacho Fernandez (Real Madrid), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Alvaro Odriozola (Real Sociedad)

Midfielders: Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion (Atletico Madrid), Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid), Marco Asensio (Real Madrid), David Silva (Manchester City), Lucas Vazquez (Real Madrid), Francisco “Isco” Alarcon (Real Madrid)

Forwards: Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo), Rodrigo (Valencia), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid)

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More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

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