Euro 2020, Spain v Switzerland: Luis Enrique’s men have their mojo back

AN extreme sports junkie, Spain manager Luis Enrique knows a fair bit about endurance from his feats in completing the infamous Marathon des Sables.

It is not just any old race either, it is the equivalent of six marathons. A brutal test of fitness, fortitude and spirit in the scorching heat of the Sahara desert.

Just as Enrique has proved his ‘ironman’ credentials, so his Spain side are assigned with lasting the Euro 2020 course.

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There have been some early stumbles and tough gradients to climb – most notably in Monday’s crazy last-16 tie against Croatia – a game which was won, then lost, before being won again in Copenhagen’s enraptured Parken.

Villain turned hero: Spain's Alvaro Morata celebrates after scoring his side's fourth goal against Croatia.
Villain turned hero: Spain's Alvaro Morata celebrates after scoring his side's fourth goal against Croatia.

Now, a treacherous quarter-final with a Swiss side who showed stamina and smartness to produce the shock of the Championship against the French in magnificent fashion awaits.

Staying power is nearly always the key to tournament success. Especially during the relatively quick turnaround time between high-intensity knock-out games.

Unless you are pretty special. As Spain were not so long back.

The line-up who won three major tournaments from 2008 to 2012 could usually get through on technical brilliance alone. By trapping opponents in their gaze and then passing them to footballing death. Death by Tiki-taka.

Now, their feted side from the Gods – orchestrated by two beguiling La Masi pass-masters and greats of the game in Xavi and Andreas Iniesta – are no more.

The stellar names have largely gone and talent alone is not enough. Spain, to many, are between eras as Enrique constructs a side who are more direct in their play, less lateral in their passing, but who press ferociously.

The suggestion has been that they will truly start to emerge in the next World Cup and beyond.

A squad devoid of Real Madrid players cannot be truly expected to win the Euros, can it? La Roja’s only links to their heady past are Sergi Busquets and Jordi Alba, with the Barcelona stars in their thirties.

Monday’s extra-time win over the Croats was Spain’s first knock-out win in their past three tournaments. That should suggest the nation’s expectations have been lowered somewhat.

Not a bit of it, with Spain’s glory days having created a monster. Enrique may be presiding over a transition in style, but the Spanish public would not take a quarter-final loss to the Swiss lightly in St Petersburg today.

The signs are that Spain’s players are made of the right stuff, after handling some early issues.

A Covid-19 outbreak in their camp was far from ideal preparation for Enrique, whose initial squad selection was criticised.

The shock omission of Sergio Ramos was used as a stick to beat Enrique with by the Madrid-based media in particular, whose criticism can be withering.

Two draws in their opening group games with Sweden and Poland did little to pacify the nation either, while the poor surface at Seville’s La Cartuja was also savaged.

Misfiring forward Alvaro Morata subsequently emerged as the fall guy, with the Juventus forward jeered by fans amid the nation’s angst in Andalusia.

But as can be the way in tournament football, events and a touch of fortune can take you a long way.

Spain certainly got that when Slovakia goalkeeper Martin Dubravka – who had earlier saved a penalty from Morata – punched the ball into his own net during the final group game.

It was the precursor to a thumping 5-0 win and Spain have not looked back, with the exit of France opening up a semi-final route. Further key developments arrived on ‘Manic Monday.’

The mental strength of goalkeeper Unai Simon in being able to respond in outstanding fashion to his calamitous first-half mistake which added to the list of Spanish keeping bloopers in major tournaments was admirable, as was Spain’s holding of nerve in extra-time after being pegged back by two late Croatia goals.

The sight of Morata looking like a player who had the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders after his sublime strike in extra-time was also highly significant. As was surely Enrique’s decision to stick with him.

At the back, Spain will be minded to stick with Eric Garcia and Aymeric Laporte today, given the way in which the physical limitations of substitute Pau Torres were exposed by Croatia.

Despite being without influential captain Granit Xhaka, the Swiss possess strength in their forward ranks in Haris Seferovic and the excellent Breel Embolo.

But Spain, for whom the likes of gifted Pedri, Dani Olmo and Pablo Sarabia are stepping up – with nous provided by Busquets and Koke – are showing signs of getting their mojo back. They have another hill to climb but are better prepared than they were.