MADRID (Reuters) - When Spain trudged off the pitch after losing 2-0 to Italy in the last 16 at the European Championship two years ago there was a pressing need to refresh the squad for a new start.
For too long coach Vicente del Bosque had kept faith with the players he steered to glory at the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. There was a sense that he was picking the team based on reputation and loyalty, rather than fitness and form.
The decision to replace goalkeeper Iker Casillas with David de Gea was taken far too late, midfielder Cesc Fabregas remained a key man, there was no clear pathway for players from the all-conquering age-group sides and Isco had not even made the squad.
Fast forward to the eve of this year’s World Cup and things could not be more different. New coach Julen Lopetegui, who took over after Euro 2016, has overseen a changing of the guard.
The former Spain under-21 boss has built the senior side around players he previously worked with and, his team having thrashed Argentina 6-1 in a friendly on Tuesday, they are once again among the favourites to become world champions.
A lot of that optimism is down to 51-year-old Lopetegui, who has made it a policy to pick on form, rather than name.
His selection of Valencia’s Rodrigo Moreno, the scorer in Friday’s 1-1 draw with Germany, and Iago Aspas of Celta Vigo, who netted the sixth against Argentina, is testament to that.
The easy decision would have been to call up Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata, a big name player at a Champions League club, but Lopetegui has remained faithful to his principles.
Perhaps the biggest achievement in his tenure so far is making Real Madrid midfielder Isco central to everything.
In from the cold, Spain’s hat-trick hero against Argentina is the country’s second top scorer under the coach’s reign and will be pivotal to their hopes in Russia.
“He shows his confidence in me with the number of minutes and games he gives me,” Isco said of Lopetegui.
It is a far cry from the Isco who has cut a frustrated figure at his club under coach Zinedine Zidane. A key player at Real one minute, left out the next, he must be one of the few players who wishes the international period never ended.
“When a player isn’t a key part of his team or isn’t getting regular games, it’s matches like these with the national side that give you life,” Isco added.
“The boss believes in me, I’m happy to work hard, improve to try and become a starter for club and country.”
Editing by Ken Ferris