Spain's win over heavily-fancied France is a positive sign for Julen Lopetegui
Throw away the traditional cliches about not reading too much into a friendly match. Instead, read on, I beg you. Spain's five-star defeat of France in Paris on Tuesday night was rich with conclusions and nourishment for our understanding of where Julen Lopetegui's team are right now.
The first point was that this was an impressive shaking of "weight off their shoulders." Regardless of how results may look, the Stade de France has never been a place where Spain find it simple to win. "Saint-Denis the menace," really. Usually any victory (they lost here three years ago to a Loic Remy goal) is hard-fought.
Moreover it was on precisely this turf last summer where La Roja surrendered their European crown in a defeat to Italy, a performance which that was slow, naive and served as a lacklustre goodbye to the previously robust Vicente Del Bosque reign.
Football is a game of good daily habits, whether in matches, personal choices, mindset or psychology. To return to this imposing French citadel of football, a place where great trophies are routinely won, and to play with all the verve, conviction and achievement that was missing in the pretty abject surrender to Italy last summer during the Euros was a very healthy sporting exercise.
But that was the smaller of the two weights.
If you watched this thrilling 2-0 win, you may be wondering whether you simply imagined that it was a "friendly." Lopetegui's team, even those of them who still have a club treble to play for, performed as if their career reputations depended on Tuesday's game. Take every dull, moribund, meaningless, "do we really have to sit through this" friendly that you can remember, having previously consigned it to the mental incinerator of junk, and compare them to Spain vs. France.
This was fast, incisive, competitive, cut-and-thrust football full of incident and testosterone. Never mind friendly matches: if all tournament games and qualifiers possessed even a fifth of this brio and bite, we'd all be sworn subscribers. And, at least for Spain's part, I'm going to tell you why. (Hint: it goes back to getting weight off their shoulders again.)
Everyone involved with La Roja knows, all too painfully, that the team is entering a time of going "back to the drawing board." Sequentially robbed of both their world and European crowns by the Dutch -- who seem to have trouble trying their bootlaces at the moment, never mind qualifying for a tournament -- and then by bête noire Italy, against whom Spain had begun their run of brilliance in the Euro 2008 quarterfinal before destroying them 4-0 in the final of the following Euros, La Roja have plummeted in both their own, and the world's, esteem.
Neither of those eliminations bore the hallmarks of a champion. And that hurt them. Right, left and centre they're being relieved of legendary players, many of whom continue to play happily and successfully for their clubs: David Villa, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Fernando Torres and Iker Casillas to name just five.
Anyone who argues there's a generation coming through that is equally as good as the departing golden one isn't telling the truth. But there is a superb mix of talent, technique and experience left. The question now is whether, without Xavi and Andres Iniesta at their peak, Spain's values about what to do with the ball and how to win matches still carry the same weight.
At the base of this, I'm arguing that those who resented La Roja's six years of world dominance between 2007 and 2013 are now fervently praying for the former champions to flounder and get a taste of their own medicine. Germany are world champions and Portugal, however unlikely it sounds in retrospect, won the Euros. But it's France that the hipsters would like to preordain as the next big thing.
Indeed, they'll be big for at least the next decade or so if the prevailing view proves to be correct. All over the pitch, Les Bleus have the type of young, quick, technical, exciting and highly coveted footballers that were once Spain's hallmark. Just look at the youth levels: the football zone, which was like a warning signal for Spain's domination of senior football. For many years, La Rojita [whether via Xavi, Carlos Marchena, Joan Capdevila, Carles Puyol, Iniesta, Torres, Gerard Piqué, Juan Mata or Javi Martínez] would win at World or European age-group levels.
Spain are the nation with the most UEFA trophies. They've won 20 (count 'em) junior age-group European titles plus three European Championships. I'd guess you might think that Germany, Italy or even Holland might sit snugly in second place but no, it's France.
During all the times I've met with and spoken to the players or coaches who helped Spain win that Euro-World Cup-Euro treble, there's not been a single one of them who didn't attribute a huge degree of their eventual senior success to the value of what's learned winning junior tournaments. Hold that thought.
Not only are France the second most successful European nation, taking all age group trophies into account, they are current UEFA U-19 champions (relieving La Roja of their crown) and won the penultimate UEFA U17 title. All across Europe, the grandest sports papers and magazines have been busy speculating: look what team France could turn out not only in the Russia World Cup, but for the next five or six major international tournaments.
I've seen graphics showing a potential France XI with a queue of young, talented, highly-rated stars in each position. (Raphael Varane, Thomas Lemar, Kylian Mbappé, Benjamin Mendy, Ousmane Dembele, Paul Pogba, Samuel Umtiti, Anthony Martial, Adrien Rabiot, Corentin Tolisso, N'Golo Kante, Antoine Griezmann, Alphonse Areola and Jean-Kevin Augustin are some of the main names who feature.) It's quite true to say that not only is this French group very exciting, but there's enough talent, experience and technique to suggest that Les Bleus should win a couple of senior tournaments before the majority of them retire.
What I liked objectively about what was on show in Paris on Tuesday is that Lopetegui's players find all of this a challenge to their dignity and competitive spirit. That's a healthy sign. It felt like the kind of "not on my watch" impetus that can draw the last competitive hostility out of an Iniesta, Sergio Ramos or David Silva, all of whom I expect to see thinking very hard about joining Pique in international retirement after Russia next summer.
Part of what accounted for just how juicy and intense this match became was that the "old guard" wanted to teach the new kids that it's easy to garner media favour, but it's hard to win your spurs." A significant number in this squad know that the glory years ahead are probably shaded blue, not red. Yet it matters to them that bragging rights are not surrendered easily. That's a sign of life for La Roja. Their pulse is strong.
The other thing that made this match sing, a point on which I strongly digress from the Spanish media, is that France deployed a cracking strategy.
Criticized in Spain for being "defensive," Deschamps tried to soak up La Roja's adventurous attacks and then play on the break at lightning speed. Rather parking the bus, the idea was that France would propose a "low block" but then flood forward in numbers and at pace. It made sense given Spain's general lack of pace and the fact that France are speed-of-light fast in many positions. What it led to, however, was the type of end-to-end "playground" football that so few teams have dared to adopt against Spain over the past decade.
In the knowledge that Spain have been technically superior and clinically good up front, opponents have for years have attempted to stifle, bore, kick or smother them. The instant that a rival wants to go toe-to-toe, Spain erupt into the type of glorious football we saw at Saint-Denis on Tuesday. The move that went "press, rob, pass... produce a trick... produce a 1-2 on the run... cross... goal" from which Spain made it 2-0 was just absolutely divine.
It was world-class teamwork and technique. A joy.
But final credit to FIFA here: not a phrase I'd often use. Any nonsense you may hear about video refereeing was put to bed here. Okay, it was new that Griezmann's goal was disallowed without a flag up anywhere and it might have seemed like salt in the wound that Gerard Deulofeu's goal stood despite the linesman flagging him for offside. But both decisions were spot-on right and justice was not only done but was seen to be done, too
At this stage, anywhere in the world, that's something to grab onto with both hands.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.