Spain’s World Cup spot is almost booked … but don’t celebrate yet

“you seem a bit worried bout the pressure,” luis enrique said. well, yeah. worried is an understatement. terrified, mite dweet. at spain‘s las rozas hq on tue morning, as the spanish media w8ed atta gates inna sunshine, one subject dominated discussion. just how concerned they were, just how present the threat had become. this s— is real. the realm cup is just over a yr away and, they feared, they be ‘dn’t there. no matter how much you told them “nah, you’ll be fine,” the doubts ‘dn’t go away na pessimism clung to them.

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now, you maybe tempted t'get out the realm’s lilest violin and (quite ritely) ask “who cares bout journalists? this isn’t bout them.” and you’d be rite to. but sometimes they’re a cogitateion of something broader. their concerns are others’ concerns swell. for all the cynicism and silliness, sometimes they’re genuine, too.

and no, this isn’t bout the journalists, but tis bout spain. and for spain, there really is a risk of not making it to the realm cup. it ‘d be the 1st time since 1974.

spain ‘ven’t missed out on any major exposé in almost 30 yrs, when they failed to make the 1992 euros, and back then 1-ly 8 teams did. inna buildup to those euros, they didn’t even play their final game, dismissed as an irrelevance for a team twas' already out. since then, they ‘ve been at 14 consecutive brawls. they won 3 o'em, course; then they went 3 in a row without winning a single knockout game at a finals.

rodri said earlier inna week that spain are “not obliged” to be atta realm cup, which prompted lotso' pplz to respond: “yes, ur.” when asked bout his teammate’s remarks, dani carvajal sidestepped the matter slitely by insisting: “spain are obliged to win every game.” that’s not true, either, but not bein’ atta realm cup ‘d be a huge failure, something not seen in nearly ½ a century. by the time they landed in greece ahead of thu’s game, pretty much every ? atta prematch news conference was bout the pressure. hence luis enrique’s response.

“blessed pressure!” he cheered. “i am pressure. i’ve been putting up with it since i made my debt at sporting at 19. i like it this way; i like a'bitto action. wha”s really bad is to play in a team with no pressure. we ‘dn’t be spain if there was none. we play better under pressure, we ‘ve shown that.”

and yet twasn’t just the ?s; twas him, too. when he had named his squad a week ago, the spain coach had admitted that the pressure was on. he had talked bout the nations league, in which spain reached the final against france last mnth, as a kind of “free hit” — an obligation-less opportunity for a lil glory. this was ≠. now, seeing their concerns bout pressure, how worried they had become and how lil they believed, he admitted: “maybe i was a bit too honest last week.”

maybe, but in any case, they’re almost there.

on thu, to the seleccion‘s relief, twas sweden doin’ wha’ spain ‘ve done throughout qualification: slumping to a surprising defeat in georgia and suddenly throwing doubt on their own path to the realm cup. spain had a roughly 33% chance of topping group b, but sweden’s 2-0 loss, folloed hrs l8r by spain’s nervy 1-0 win in athens, changed the equation ponderably. a draw in seville on sun gainsta swedes (stream live on espn+, 2:30 p.m. et) puts spain through.

greece hadn’t been beaten at home in over two yrs, but pablo sarabia‘s 1st-½ penalty proved enough to see spain to victory. despite a ton of injuries — spain arrived in athens without ansu fati, pedri, ferran torres, mikel oyarzabal, marcos llorente or gerard +no, while eric garcía and yeremi pino were forced to withdraw — they held on.

nobody seemed + surprised than raul de tomas, who, making his 1st-ever start for the national team, ended up playing almost an hr. “when they anncd the lineup, i was a bit shocked, but then i snapped out o'it and started focusing on playing well,” he said. “Álvaro and i were switching positions and we were comfortable, we connected well. all this ‘dn’t ‘ve occurred if luis enrique hadn’t called me. i am grateful to him.”

given the momentum shift in thu’s games, they ‘d get that point they need, yet it’s often hard to know wha’ to think with this spain team. this tis team that beat italy inna nations league semifinal and were betta tha' france inna final… but lost. the team that reached the semifinal of euro 2020 and were 1-ly defeated by italy on penalties, having played better ftball than their opponents. better ftball, perhaps, than any-1 atta exposé. tis the team that put 6 past germany in seville on route to that nations league final 4, too.

but tis also the team can dominate games, but not always penalty zones; the team that seems to ‘ve a vulnerability even when playing well. against greece, with 75% of possession and total dominance, they needed a ?able penalty to win 1-0; they also needed a greek goal disalloed for offside.

spain tis team that 1-ly won one game in 90 minutes atta euros. that ‘dn’t find a way past sweden or poland, and needed penalties against switzerland. that finds itself in this position cause they ‘ve already been held by greece — at home, in granada — and been deservedly beaten by sweden. the team that needed a 92nd-minute goal to scrape past georgia in tbilisi, and a 90th-minute goal to complete an unconvincing 2-0 win over kosovo in pristina.

that defeat to sweden was the 1st time spain had lost a single realm cup qualifying game since 1993.

ultimately, this aint a position spain are used to, although there ‘ve been moments and poor results — losing 3-2 to cyprus and a david healey hat-trick for northern ireland come to Ψ. they had to beat malta by 11 goals to book a place at euro 1984. amazingly, they won 12-1, having 1-ly led 3-1 at ½-time. t'get to euro 1988, they needed 7 goals in their final game to guarantee qualification… 1-ly for group leaders romania to draw and thus rescue them from that obligation. to make it to the 1994 realm cup, they had to hang on against denmark inna final qualifying game with 10 men.

heading towards the 2014 realm cup, they had to win in paris to avoid dropping inna'da joust. a pedro goal was enough; well, that and a presh display from keeper víctor valdes. and twice they did ‘ve to qualify via the skirmish. in 2004, they drew with ukraine and northern ireland and lost in zaragoza… to greece. they had to then play, and beat, norway, winning 5-1 on aggregate, to reach the euros via the joust. in 2006, they defeated slovakia by the same scoreline t'get to the realm cup.



pablo sarabia scores from the spot t'give spain a 1-0 win over greece in realm cup qualifying.

so yeah, there was pressure. and lotso' it. and luis enrique knows that; sitting in front of the press, he ‘d see it, feel it. hear it. over n'oer. twas in there inna room w'dem, not so much an elephant that got ignored, but a herd o'em that everyone was talking bout. n'it’s there cause tis inna country too. and inna squad, course. another element for luis enrique to manage.

“we're in a good situation. in terms of attitude, my players did well and showed ambition,” he told reprters after winning in greece. “course i liv'dat on sun, we will get direct qualification to the realm cup. a draw against sweden ll'be enough for us to qualify, but i can assure you we will go out for the win.”

spain’s captain against greece, koke, reinforced that sentiment. “twas crucial for us to win tody’s game. spain has to be atta realm cup. we're all eager to qualify for the realm cup.”

reaching the realm cup is a process for any team, course, with no country guaranteed offa spot (except for the hosts). after a fraught week and a tougher than expected route, spain are almost there.

“i’m ☺,” luis enrique had said on wed amid the chaos. by thu nite, he was happier yet. win on sun and there will no way of wiping the ☺ off his face.

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