Spain team undergoing DNA shift from Barcelona to Real Madrid under Julen Lopetegui
A strong but subtle shift in influence within the Spain squad from Barcelona to Real Madrid is evident from the players picked by national coach Julen Lopetegui for pre-World Cup friendlies against Germany and Argentina.
It was not a coincidence that Spain's glory years between 2008 and 2012 coincided with Pep Guardiola's Barcelona side dominating both La Liga and the Champions League. The possession based style of football developed by Guardiola at the Camp Nou was hugely influential at the international level too. A high point of the connection was the Euro 2012 final when seven Barca players appeared on the pitch together during a 4-0 hammering of Italy.
However the last few years have seen Real Madrid win three of the last four Champions League trophies, as well as last season's La Liga title. So it should not really be surprising that over his 18 months in charge, Lopetegui has been moving the balance of his squad more towards the Bernabeu.
Spain's emergence from the wilderness by winning Euro 2008 has often been attributed (rightly or wrongly) to then coach Luis Aragones ditching long-serving national captain and Blancos legend Raul Gonzalez, and instead placing his faith in a new generation symbolised by Barca's Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta.
Madrid contributed just two players to Aragones' 23-man squad in 2008 -- the same number as Real Mallorca and one less than Villarreal. Iker Casillas was goalkeeper and captain, with Sergio Ramos at right-back. Barca did not exactly dominate -- they had just three in Xavi, Iniesta and Carles Puyol, although key squad member Cesc Fabregas also had the famous Blaugrana DNA.
By the 2010 World Cup, manager Vicente Del Bosque incorporated Guardiola protégés Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez as important team members and Victor Valdes was named as a reserve keeper. La Liga's top Spanish scorer David Villa was soon to move to the Camp Nou from Valencia, while Iniesta of course hit the winner in the final in extra time against the Netherlands.
Madrid still had five important squad members though -- Xabi Alonso had moved to the Bernabeu from Liverpool and joined Ramos and Casillas in the starting XI. Alvaro Arbeloa and Raul Albiol were backup defenders. Former Madrid B player Juan Mata, who came through at Valencia, also got just 20 minutes in the tournament.
Del Bosque was not one for changing a winning formula. With Fabregas having returned from Arsenal, by Euro 2012 Barca's contribution was at its peak. Six of these started the final, with left-back Jordi Alba scoring the second goal, and Pedro entering as a sub to make it seven on the pitch at the same time.
But Madrid also had four starters in that game, with Del Bosque having skillfully handled the attempts by then Bernabeu boss Jose Mourinho to sow discord in the national camp. Mata also came off the bench in the final and scored, while the squad also included ex-Castilla youth teamers Alvaro Negredo (then at Sevilla) and Juanfran Torres (Atletico Madrid).
Del Bosque's resistance to change hit Spain badly at the 2014 World Cup: Barca had the same seven players, while Madrid were down to three. Faith in old servants such as Casillas and Xavi was misplaced, as the holders exited dramatically in the group stages.
By Euro 2016, Barca's contingent had dropped to five, with Marc Bartra in as a squad centre-back. But then Chelsea players Fabregas and Pedro, along with Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich), Hector Bellerin (Arsenal) and Nolito (Celta Vigo), kept the Blaugrana DNA quotient very high. Madrid had just two current players -- Ramos and winger Lucas Vazquez. Bernabeu brought up Alvaro Morata, then at Juventus and the departed Casillas (Porto), were also involved.
Two years later the pendulum has firmly swung towards Madrid. Isco and Asensio have emerged as key members of Lopetegui's revitalised side. Bernabeu youth product Dani Carvajal is a starter at right-back, versatile defender Nacho Fernandez an important squad member and Vazquez remains very much in the picture. Madrid skipper Ramos is now national captain too.
The latest squad for March's friendlies with Germany and Argentina brought call-ups for three more players at Madrid as kids -- Valencia's Rodrigo Moreno and Dani Parejo, and Chelsea's Marcos Alonso. There is also a decent chance that by the time the tournament begins this summer long-time Florentino Perez target David De Gea will have finally completed a move from Manchester United.
An injury to Busquets means there are only three Blaugrana players in the latest 23 -- along with long-gone Thiago and Pepe Reina. Ex-La Masia Bellerin has been passed out at right-back by Real Sociedad's Alvaro Odriozola, another reported Madrid target for the summer. Sergi Roberto is perhaps the only Barca player who can really feel aggrieved at recent selections.
Lopetegui has handled the changeover in influence very deftly, as befits a man who knows both sides of the Clasico divide very well without being closely identified with either. The Basque came through the youth ranks at the Bernabeu, but played only one senior game for Real. After then representing Las Palmas and Logrones, he joined Barcelona, playing just five La Liga games in three seasons at Camp Nou.
On retirement, Lopetegui coached Madrid's Castilla youth team in 2008-09, when Marcos Alonso and Nacho were both just 18. In subsequent years in charge of Spain's Under-19s and Under-20s he helped bring through many of today's senior stars, plus others who have fallen away recently including current Stoke City forward Jese Rodriguez and Watford winger Gerard Deulofeu.
It now seems certain that for the first tournament in over a decade Madrid will provide more Spain players than Barca or any other club. As many as 10 of the final 23 could well have a Bernabeu background. Coaching changes have had an influence -- with Blancos helmer Zinedine Zidane more of a football purist than current Barca boss Ernesto Valverde. It is also true that the Camp Nou board have recently spent more on big international stars, while Perez has been snapping up the best young local talent.
Whether all this is a positive or a negative for Spain is a moot point, as the national coach's job is just to get the best players out on the pitch, regardless of their origins. But it still marks quite a change.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan