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May 13, 2014

Spain blog: Usual suspects galore for Del Bosque

There were few surprises in Vicente del Bosque's provisional squad for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil but then again, there were never likely to be.

Breaking into a side with so many established first-choice players is a rare occurrence at La Roja. Del Bosque's embarrassment of riches in midfield has been working together over the course of the past three tournaments when Luis Aragones decided to do away with the old guard -- and the "fury" part of the side's nickname -- and chuck the ball to a group of small midfielders with an eye for a threaded pass and the ability to simply anesthetize opponents who were denied a sniff.

The system will not change much in Brazil -- Barcelona's players have certainly been defending tiki-taka after Gerardo Martino's attempt to get the side playing in a different way can be said to have failed. Barca may yet win the league this Sunday, but they have won few plaudits with their performances. Possession will again remain key, but now Spain has a couple of plan Bs in hand should an opponent prove particularly stubborn.

Costa Rica and Chile found the formula in friendlies and sides like Finland and Georgia, with limited resources but solid structures, have also frustrated La Roja in recent months. Warm-up matches against Bolivia and El Salvador will provide a similar test.

- Report: Torres, Mata in provisional squad

Of course, Chile is in Group B with Spain, Australia and the Netherlands. There are no easy games in that mix. Del Bosque has selected what he believes to be his best squad, and will now have to discard seven players before May 25 and the friendly against Bolivia on May 30.

Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Pepe Reina (Napoli), David De Gea (Manchester United)

There was never in a million years going to be anyone other than Iker Casillas between the sticks when the ball is rolled off the spot in Salvador on June 13. Even in his darkest days at Real Madrid when it seemed he might not get another game for his boyhood club, Del Bosque put a grandfatherly arm around the Saint's shoulders. Not playing for your club? Not to worry, you're still Spain number one, said the moustachioed maestro.

And Casillas has shown enough when he has been called into action in the cup competitions to suggest he deserves his spot on merit, not just nostalgia. A string of fine saves has proven that he is not yet ready to be farmed out. Reina and De Gea will be interested spectators, nothing more. Diego Lopez, who usurped Casillas at Real, can feel rightly aggrieved that he is not third man.

Key man: Iker Casillas

Defenders: Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos (both Real Madrid), Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba (both Barcelona), Cesar Azplicueta (Chelsea), Juanfran (Atletico Madrid), Javi Martinez (Bayern Munich), Raul Albiol (Napoli), Alberto Moreno (Sevilla)

One minor surprise was the omission of Alvaro Arbeloa, who has 56 caps, more than any other defender in this squad other than Serio Ramos and Gerard Pique (who has 59). But Dani Carvajal's form for Real Madrid merits his inclusion while Cesar Azpilicueta has shifted Ashley Cole from Chelsea's starting line-up and can play on either flank. His switch from right to left-back at the club level drew the praise of Cole; high praise, indeed.

Jordi Alba will start on the left with either Carvajal, Juanfran or Azpilicueta initially on the right. Alberto Moreno also provides cover on the left so Del Bosque should have no concerns for those positions in Brazil. However, at least one of these players is likely to be in the condemned seven. Juanfran would be my guess.

Javi Martinez's conversion to a centre-half under Pep Guardiola is a gift from the gods for the former Barcelona manager's national team. In Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, Spain has two of the finest defenders in the world. After them it's basically Raul Albiol, who is decent enough but not at the level of the other two. Previously, after Albiol, there was an out-of position midfielder or full-back. Now there is Martinez. Amen.

Key man: Sergio Ramos -- if he can avoid getting sent off

Midfielders: Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas (all Barcelona), Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid), Ander Iturraspe (Athletic Bilbao), David Silva (Manchester City), Santi Cazorla (Arsenal), Koke (Atletico Madrid), Tiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich), Juan Mata (Manchester United), Jesus Navas (Manchester City)

Thiago's sterling form for Bayern Munich has caught the eye this season and he was always going to be on the plane. Whether or not he'll make it onto the pitch is another matter. Spain's midfield is as set in stone as King Arthur's sword and it will take a lot more than a few good performaces from others to dislodge it. Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso will provide the engine room, with Xavi dictating play from the middle and Andres Iniesta a little further forward. However, with only Sergio Busquets under 30, the wilting heat will mean tired legs around the 70-minute mark.

This is Xavi's last World Cup, and most likely that of Alonso as well. They will provide the platform but there is room for a super-sub to come on and apply the finishing touch in a close match. That man should be Jesus Navas, whose pace can unsettle any defence. If the blockage is in the middle, David Silva or Cesc hold the keys.

Cazorla, Koke, debutant Iturraspe, Mata et al. will probably not get much of a look-in, but that is a midfield that most other countries would play as a first team. I suspect many of the seven will come from this section. There are simply too many creators and not enough who can do the hard work.

Key man: Xavi -- one final recital from the maestro

Forwards: Diego Costa, David Villa (both Atletico Madrid), Alvaro Negredo (Manchester City), Pedro Rodriguez (Barcelona), Fernando Llorente (Juventus), Fernando Torres (Chelsea)

Spain often doesn't even bother with a striker so taking six isn't going to happen. Pedro is only nominally a forward who operates across the lines, through the middle and as an out-and-out winger. Versatility like that is getting him on the plane. Poor old Roberto Soldado, who boasts the most lethal minutes-to-goals ratio in Spain colours, has endured such a miserable season that he isn't even in the provisional squad.

Fernando Torres should probably not get too comfortable at Spain's training complex in Las Rozas. There simply isn't room for nostalgia or the vain hope that he will find form again in a Spain shirt.

Llorente is too similar to Costa, whose phenomenal scoring record this season ensures him a ticket. That leaves Spain's all-time leading scorer on 56 goals in 94 games, David Villa, vying with Torres (36 in 106) for the poacher's place. I think Negredo will travel because he offers an aerial threat, can hold the ball up and pull defenders this way and that and he's more mobile than Llorente.

Key man: Diego Costa -- the Brazil-born naturalised Spaniard at his first World Cup in his homeland

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