With new coach, Spain aims to boost scoring against Norway
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — It’s been more than a decade of disappointments for Spain following the team’s golden era that netted the 2010 World Cup title and two European championships. Now, with a new coach in charge, the team that once took a possession-based attack to its maximum expression with its “tiki-taka” passing style will have yet another chance to breathe new life into a system that again looked outdated at last year’s World Cup. Luis de la Fuente has made it a priority to solve the team’s scoring problems since he was promoted from Spain’s Under-21 team to replace Luis Enrique in December, and he will get his first test on Saturday in Malaga when Spain hosts Norway in their first qualifying match for the 2024 European championship. Three days later, Spain will play Scotland in Glasgow. De la Fuente has overhauled the squad that only managed one win in Qatar and went out in the round-of-16 against Morocco. That defeat felt like déjà vu for Spain fans, coming four years after it exited in the same round against Russia at the 2018 World Cup. In both upsets, Spain completed more than 1,000 passes without creating hardly any scoring chances, and then lost penalty shootouts. Veteran Celta Vigo striker Iago Aspas took Spain’s last penalty in the shootout with Russia, only to have it saved. He is now back with Spain for the first time since 2019. De la Fuente, who is relatively unknown in Spain after spending years coaching the nation’s youth teams, has put together a squad focused on the immediate goal of Euro 2024 in Germany rather than starting a total rebuild with younger players. Aspas is 35 years old, and the three other strikers on the squad are all at least 30, making it hard to imagine they will still be at the top of their game come the next World Cup. But De la Fuente wants to ensure that his team has goalscorers, and not just the passing and playmaking stylists that Luis Enrique preferred at nearly every position. Aspas, Espanyol striker Joselu Mato, and Real Betis forward Borja Iglesias have 12 goals each in the Spanish league this season, making them the highest-scoring Spaniards in the competition. Alvaro Morata, the only pure striker Luis Enrique took to Qatar, has also returned. He has netted 10 goals for Atletico Madrid. Aspas, who was overlooked by Luis Enrique because he didn’t fit his playing style, said that De la Fuente is seeking to forge a group that can find different ways of attacking rivals who don’t mind sitting back and defending. “For me, with Luis Enrique we had a very, very set way of playing, and from my point of view, we didn’t have a plan ‘B’ or other variants,” Aspas said on Thursday. “Now our coach has called up the three top Spanish scorers. If we can’t produce goals, it won’t be his fault. With Joselu, Borja and myself, we have players who can do different things and are not so tied to one way of playing like before.” While Aspas and Iglesias are capable of creating goals for themselves and teammates, Joselu is an old-fashioned center forward who likes to battle for long balls and scores with one touch of his boot or head. He can now make his debut for Spain at the age of 32. Other players are getting a second chance. Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga hasn’t played for Spain since 2020. Real Madrid defender Nacho Fernández, 33, returns for the first time since 2018. De la Fuente has also opted for a defense that is more physical. Athletic Bilbao’s Iñigo Martínez, 31, is back, while Osasuna’s 29-year-old center back David García made Spain’s squad for the first time. Despite the changes in personnel, this Spain team will still most likely want to keep the ball for as long as possible. De la Fuente has declared himself a “defender of Spain’s playing style.” Against Norway, Spain will not have to worry about Manchester City star Erling Haaland, who is out with a groin injury. Norway will still have Arsenal midfielder Martin Odegaard and striker Alexander Sorloth, who has scored 13 times overall for Spanish club Real Sociedad this season. Group A also includes Georgia and Cyprus. The top two finishers in the group will advance.
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