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May 27, 2014

Five UCL lessons for Spain, Vicente del Bosque

Former Real Madrid midfielder Santiago Solari breaks down how Diego Costa's injury affects his World Cup spot with Spain.

Lisbon was subject to a Spanish invasion for Real Madrid's dramatic 4-1 extra-time European Cup victory over Atletico Madrid on Saturday, and there were no more interested spectators than national coach Vicente del Bosque.

- Marcotti: What's next for Real, Atletico?

The 63-year-old has witnessed dozens of matches involving Spanish players over the 2013-14 season but the European Cup final was one of the most salient contests in terms of his Spain squad selection. It demonstrated the physical conditioning of his players after a long hard domestic campaign, but also illustrated whether or not they were capable of performing under pressure.

Here are five conclusions Del Bosque will have drawn from the match...

1. Neither Daniel Carvajal nor Juanfran are perfect options at right-back

Realistically, there are two slots in Del Bosque's starting XI still up for grabs. There's the centre-forward role, which has been uncertain throughout Del Bosque's six-year period in charge and where he's attempted everything from a false number nine to a standard number nine, two number nines and finally, a number nine who isn't even Spanish.

The other key position is right-back, where Del Bosque had depended upon Sergio Ramos and then Alvaro Arbeloa at the last two major tournaments. Ramos is now established as Gerard Pique's partner in the centre of defence while the ultra-reliable, versatile, trusty Arbeloa has dropped out of the reckoning and recently announced his international tournament. Now, Del Bosque has three options -- Carvajal, Juanfran or Cesar Azpilucueta. Pleasingly for Del Bosque, all three played right-back in the European Cup semi-finals this season, so he's hardly short of quality options.

- Train: Spain's defensive worries

The European Cup final was a showdown between the first two and both players had eventful matches. Carvajal was the game's freest player throughout the first half, taking advantage of Koke's narrowness to constantly overlap into space and take the ball forward down the flank. Unfortunately, his end product was often poor and crossing isn't yet his strong suit. However in a system like Spain's, Del Bosque might consider this irrelevant.

Carvajal had more problems after half-time when Diego Simeone switched to a 4-1-4-1 system and used Adrian Lopez high up against Carvajal. He was now pinned back and forced to get through more defensive work -- the first 15 minutes of the second half were subsequently Atletico's strongest in open play, with Adrian their greatest goal threat. It showed that defensively, too, Carvajal still needs to improve.

Dani Carvajal didn't dazzle vs. Atletico but still seems to fit Spain's style.
Dani Carvajal didn't dazzle vs. Atletico but still seems to fit Spain's style.

But Juanfran didn't have a particularly sparkling game either. The vast majority of Real's dangerous attacks came down his side, with the superb Angel Di Maria, selected man of the match, constantly dribbling past him before swinging in crosses. The Atletico right-back picked up a knock in extra-time and was unable to defend his flank properly -- all three of Real's extra-time goals originated from that right-back zone. We saw less of Juanfran's off-the-ball attacking running, which had proved so effective against Chelsea at the semi-final stage.

Neither of these players are a perfect option but Carvajal is probably better for Spain's style of play -- he's more assured in possession, always Del Bosque's first thought.

2. Sergio Ramos is a great Plan B

Sooner or later, Spain will be chasing a game in the knockout stages of a major competition. They're completely unaccustomed to this position -- from their ten knockout games at Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, they've kept ten clean sheets, an amazing record. How will they chase matches? Will they continue to tiki-taka, or will they knock the ball longer?

If they opt for the latter, Del Bosque might resist bringing on a more physical striker and instead use his centre-backs to win aerial balls. Gerard Pique has proved himself a useful makeshift centre-forward, memorably producing a brilliant spin-and-shot to get a goal back against Inter four years ago.

But Ramos might be even more effective. Having shown his impressive aerial ability in the opposition box against Bayern Munich in the semi-final, he produced an even more decisive moment here, superbly glancing a stoppage-time header into the far corner.

Spain's Plan B might come from within, with Sergio Busquets and a full-back acting as the defence while Pique and Ramos push forward. It might sound ridiculous but some World Cup sides would love to have technicians as adept as Ramos and Pique as their strike duo.

3. Lack of match practice might have affected Iker Casillas

Casillas planting a huge kiss on Ramos' cheek told the story -- the centre-back had not only saved Real Madrid, he'd spared Casillas' blushes.

The goalkeeper's error for Diego Godin's opener was inexplicable -- there was no reason for him to advance towards the crowd of players in the box rather than remaining on his line. It was reminiscent of a volleyball player darting to the net in anticipation of the ball dropping into his side of the court, only to find an opponent tipping it over his head at the last minute.

- Hunter: Casillas still key for Spain

Casillas has never been brilliant at commanding his goalmouth, but his decision-making always suggested he understood this. He'd generally remain on his line and leave his centre-backs to deal with high balls.

Saturday's surprising advance will worry Del Bosque and while Casillas has actually started a high number of matches, 30, in the last 12 months despite being a mere back-up, it's worth considering whether Casillas' mental state has been affected by being demoted to Diego Lopez's deputy.

4. Koke isn't yet ready to start World Cup matches

Koke produced a brilliant spell of football during Atletico's title-winning 1-1 draw away at Barcelona and has been magnificent all season from his left-sided midfield position, shuttling forward into attack to despatch clever through-balls for Diego Costa.

Another fine performance in the European Cup final and Koke would have been knocking on the door of the first XI. Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta haven't enjoyed good club seasons at Barcelona, Juan Mata experienced a very difficult year, David Silva never seems to be completely free of injury problems and Santi Cazorla's form dipped after a great first campaign at Arsenal.

But Koke couldn't command the midfield zone as he would have wished, with his opposite number Di Maria the game's star performer. Koke should play a role in Brazil, but probably from the bench.

5. Diego Costa might struggle to be fit

This could have been a perfect game to learn more about Diego Costa -- in the end, considering he didn't last 10 minutes, Del Bosque only discovered that he was nowhere near match-fit and shouldn't be entirely trusted regarding his own level of fitness.

Del Bosque is generally faithful to players struggling with injury -- he took Fernando Torres in a not dissimilar situation four years ago and desperately tried to incorporate the striker into the side despite the Liverpool striker lacking sharpness.

But Costa is a different issue. He's a newcomer to the squad, has only played one match for Spain and doesn't necessarily fit the system. Del Bosque will be keen to include the striker on the back of his superb domestic campaign but if Costa is struggling in the lead-up to Spain's first match, he could be replaced -- teams can make changes up to 24 hours before their opener.