Where do Spain go from here?
After Spain's early World Cup exit; an unexpected humiliation confirmed by Chile on Wednesday evening in the Maracana, Xabi Alonso admitted: "It's over."
He was talking of course about La Roja's period of dominance on the international stage, which reaped an unprecedented three consecutive major titles in six years. He also could well have been talking about his own tenure on the most successful international team of the past generation.
It all began in 2007 when the late Luis Aragones opted to dispense with the old guard -- including national talisman Raul Gonzalez -- and as the "wise man of Hortaleza" himself said, throw the ball to the "bajitos (little men)." It was a bold decision that paid dividends as tiki-taka conquered the world. Now Vicente del Bosque has the same task ahead of him -- if he elects to stay on until Euro 2016. The 63-year-old renewed his contract in November 2013, but he might be wondering, the day after the king of Spain's formal abdication, if doing likewise isn't a half-bad idea.
Xavi's international career is over -- the Barcelona midfielder watched the capitulation from the bench and is off to the UAE. Alonso was hauled off at halftime for the youthful Koke, a momentary changing of the guard that signaled the end of a glorious era and the rebuild that Spain now has to face up to, however painful it may be. Who will line up for La Roja in the opening match of Euro 2016 (assuming they qualify)? Here's a guess -- assuming Spain tears up the script -- in a 4-3-3 formation:
GK: David de Gea
Had the Manchester United keeper not been injured, the suspicion is that Iker Casillas might have been dropped for the Chile game. San Iker made some good saves to prevent the Netherlands' rout from becoming even more severe, but he was indecisive, caught out of position and did little against Chile to suggest he should retain his place. De Gea is the future of the Spanish goal and will only improve under the reign of Louis van Gaal. Casillas isn't assured a starting spot next season at all.
RB: Dani Carvajal
A player who looks a lot better now simply because he wasn't selected for the final 23. It was something of a surprise after two breakthrough seasons in Germany and Spain, but the Real Madrid defender can expect to be heavily involved in qualifying for Euro 2016. Cesar Azpilicueta looked a little out of his depth in Brazil and Juanfran didn't get off the bench, so the right back spot is very much up for grabs.
LB: Alberto Moreno
Jordi Alba, on the other hand, may wish he hadn't made the cut after a pretty woeful couple of games. The Barcelona left back was pickpocketed by the Dutch and then mugged by Chile. Admittedly, he didn't receive a lot of cover but he failed in most basic aspects of defending. Moreno's projected move to Liverpool will help him develop as a player, while Alba is one of many Barça employees who have yet to find out what Luis Enrique has in mind for next season.
CB: Javi Martinez
The Bayern Munich player was drafted for the ineffectual and ponderous Gerard Pique and can expect to feature more regularly in the heart of the Spanish defence. As a reconstituted defensive midfielder, Martinez's positional sense is good and he has a yard of speed of over Pique, as well as being a better header of the ball. Pique's performances in Brazil and for his club during the past 18 months have been well below par. He has probably lost his place as an automatic starter for Spain as a result.
CB: Sergio Ramos (c)
The Real Madrid defender failed to replicate his club form in Brazil but will lead the side into the Euros in France. Still only 28 and with energy to burn, his attacking ability, free-kick prowess and his leadership will be a steady hand on a youthful rudder when the current side is revamped.
On as a second-half substitute for Alonso in Rio, the Atletico Madrid midfielder has been anointed by none other than Xavi as his successor on the side and the leader of the "orchestra" for the next decade. Far be it for me to argue, and the number of clubs attempting to woo the 22-year-old says it all. Spain and Atletico must hope he chooses first-team football over a suitcase full of cash and a place on the bench somewhere else. Koke is a wonderful player and will be instrumental in the reconstruction of La Roja.
MF: Sergio Busquets
Love or hate the pantomime villain, he remains Spain's best defensive midfielder, and at 26, will probably be around for the World Cup in Russia. Busquets missed a sitter against Chile but that is not his area of influence. He will be in France to nudge, dive and drive as ever.
MF: Cesc Fabregas
After three seasons as second fiddle at Barça, Fabregas' move to Chelsea could be the best thing to happen to Spain. Seen as a natural successor to Frank Lampard, Fabregas can do a similar job for Spain as he used to at Arsenal. La Roja lack a box-to-box midfielder and tiki-taka has been figured out -- Fabregas is talented enough to lead the transition to a new system and will be a major part of the side for the next four years.
FW: Juan Mata
More incisive than Jesus Navas and more consistent than David Silva, Mata is another player who will benefit from the van Gaal regime. Wayne Rooney is on the wane and Mata can fill the No. 10 role perfectly for club and country for years to come. Chelsea's player of the year two years running didn't have much joy at United under Moyes, but few did (see Marouane Fellaini's performance for Belgium this week in his proper position for details). Mata will flourish under van Gaal and will become a fixture for Spain in qualifying.
FW: Jese Rodriguez
There is little doubt that had he not been injured, Jese would have made it to Brazil. A breakthrough season at Real Madrid drew plaudits from Carlo Ancelotti and an arched eyebrow of interest from del Bosque. Jese will feature prominently next season and is the two-footed live wire up top that Spain lacked in Brazil. The Diego Costa experiment hasn't worked and David Villa and Fernando Torres have probably played their last games for Spain. Jese is the future.
FW: Andres Iniesta
The "White Knight" may be more of a silver fox now, but he has one last major tournament left in him. It's incredible how Iniesta manages to maintain his performance levels, but there is still no getting the ball off him -- he has a laser eye for a reverse pass and hits a ferocious shot. One of the few Spain players to emerge with any credit from the Brazil debacle, Iniesta will be on the left of the team in France once again.