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Is Spain 'tournament-ready'?

Spain
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 By Sid Lowe

David Villa's Spain recall isn't just to make up the numbers given MLS form

Craig Burley believes David Villa's form and professionalism demonstrated with NYCFC has earned his recall to Spain's squad.
David Villa chats with ESPN FC's Julie Stewart-Binks about NYCFC's draw at New York Red Bulls and his Spain call-up.

David Villa walked out of the Spain national team in June 2014 and didn't walk in again until late August 2017, long after everyone assumed it was all over. Everyone including him. He had insisted that he would play "until I'm 55" if he could, but he knew he couldn't: he was stopping 23 years short. That day was set to be his last. "Realistically, you don't think you're going to be back," he said. He said so from the news conference room at the RFEF's HQ at Las Rozas, 25 kilometers outside Madrid. It's not normally a place players particularly want to be but there he was, wearing a Spain polo shirt and a big smile.

When Villa departed, he left with a goal but he did so sadly, head down, with Spain eliminated early from the World Cup in Brazil. He returned this week with Spain looking to be in the World Cup in Russia; on Saturday night, they face Italy at the Bernabeu. "We know how important this is," Spain coach Julen Lopetegui said. When he arrived at Las Rozas on Monday evening, they were waiting for him: new friends (teammate Marco Asensio was only 9 when Villa made his Spain debut) and old ones, not just among the players but staff, too.

"I'm on a cloud," Villa said.

He had never actually announced his retirement from the national team, but when you go to play in the U.S. as he did with New York City FC, you're effectively announcing your retirement from the national team. Your retirement from "real," competitive football, in fact. That, at least, is the assumption even if the Spain manager at the time, Vicente Del Bosque, with an unusual lack of tact for a man normally so sensitive, said afterwards that he didn't know that game against Australia in Curitiba would be Villa's last for Spain. Villa did, which was why he wasn't happy with the way it happened: withdrawn early, trudging slowly to the touchline and his exit.

As Spain's all-time top scorer, Villa had stopped three short of his 100th cap and with 59 goals. In all probability, he said, "this is the end."

"If I got called up, I'd be delighted to go. I love Spain and always have for as long as I can remember. But you have to be realistic." This week, he was called back again. "Obviously, when you go to a league like MLS and you're going to be out of action for eight months, you don't think you're going back," he said. But there he was, age 35. Asked what had changed over the past three years, Villa smiled: "They called me."

And that's it? That's it. They called him, nothing else.

That's not entirely true of course: Villa admitted that he is a little slimmer than he was. He also said that there is one, big advantage to playing in the U.S. -- the number of games he plays a season is down from 60 to more like 30. But, he looked just like he always had and, he insisted, he is the same player as ever: he trains the same way, plays the same way, is the same. He does the same in the U.S. as he did in Spain.

Maybe that last line is more significant than it appears: unlike some players, Villa has treated the last, non-European leg of his career as seriously as the rest. "I do the same as I did at Sporting," he said... and that was 16 years ago. Villa was asked if his return might provide encouragement to older players, underlining that there is always hope. It is good for MLS too, a response to the easy dismissal of the league.

"I think it has opened the door," said Patrick Vieira, Villa's manager at NYCFC. "I think David going back to the national team just shows that you can make the decision to come to MLS and still have ambition, still have a chance to play for your national team."

The reaction to that decision suggested much the same; it is remarkable how positive the response was to a 35-year-old playing in MLS getting a call up three years after he last played for his country -- and all the more so when he played that last, largely irrelevant game having not started the previous two because Spain were already out of the World Cup, their collapse complete, an era definitively over. It would have been easy to bemoan a "retired" player coming back to a national team supposed to be beginning a new era. Yet there were very few complaints and no fury; instead there was enthusiasm and joy in seeing Villa back.

In part, that is because he is popular even if, oddly, he never quite came to symbolise the golden era like Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernández or Iker Casillas. In part, maybe it is precisely because of that and because of that final day, the way his departure in Brazil was tinged with sadness and linked to a failure that was not his fault; because with time his contribution was recognised, if a little late, and because of a sense that he deserved to go differently. In part, it is because his goals in the U.S. were played back in Spain, each a shot of pride and admiration: one of ours doing well over there. Still got it! And because they remembered his goals from before -- more, remember, than anyone else, ever.

Villa, centre, has scored 60 goals in 88 games for New York City FC, proving he's still got what it takes.

For many, a Spain call-up felt like reward for all that, a homage. A way of celebrating all those goals he has been racking up, and goals provide a mathematical argument that don't always require a closer analysis. 58 goals in 88 games make a compelling case that doesn't always call for contextualisation. And yet that when it came to Julen Lopetegui, that analysis was made; the context was investigated, too. Spain's coach had been in the U.S., spoken to Villa, watched his games and training sessions, and assessed the opponents he was up against. He analysed his physical condition but more importantly, he looked not just the goals he got but the way he played.

Lopetegui did it his way. What he saw was Villa doing what Villa always did. "Nothing's changed" was not just an empty platitude. The movement, the intelligence, the finishing were familiar, and they were his. Denied space, faced by deep defences -- and few are expected to be as deep as Italy's -- the No. 9 role for Spain poses particular difficulties that no-one has resolved quite like Villa. In the absence of Diego Costa who has not trained over the summer -- "I could say 1,000 things about Costa," Sergio Ramos noted -- an opportunity opens up, one that might close later, a one-off.

"Is that the real reason you're here?" Villa was asked. "To be honest, I don't care," he said.

And anyway, Villa might be useful even if Costa was there. Look at the strikers they have been through since Villa left. Fernando Torres may just about be a case apart (and to start with he played with Villa), but Fernando Llorente, Michu, Alvaro Negredo, Roberto Soldado, Paco Alcácer, Iago Aspas, Aritz Aduriz and even Costa have tried. All are good players but none have quite fit Spain's style, certainly not as well as Villa did. No one has, so much so that Spain have often chosen to play without a striker and go with a "false nine" instead. They might do it again: Cesc has played there, David Silva too, and Asensio has occupied that position in training this week.

Alvaro Morata admitted that against Italy, it may well be the best option "even if it doesn't suit me." After all, going into the area against Giorgio Chiellini is, he told El País, "like going into a cage with a gorilla and being told you have to take his lunch off him." Even in the absence of Chiellini -- ruled out with injury on Friday -- Italy's defence is more comfortable with a reference point.

So, that's one option. Villa is another even if it is only off the bench, a player who may find a way through where others don't. Spain have been seeking a player that makes sense of their passes -- that makes their passes, in fact. "Desmarque" is the word: the ability to escape a marker, open a line of pass, time the movement. It's in the mind, not the legs, and Villa still has that at 35.

"What he can bring is what he has always brought: quality, intuition, attitude, desire: we think he can help," said Lopetegui. He insisted that the recall was for a reason: because he wants to win.

This is not a homage or a reward -- although Villa may well deserve one -- it is, he hopes, a solution.

"I'm here to help," Villa said.

Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.

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