Spain's mauling of Croatia shows they are back to their best under Luis Enrique
You didn't have to be a Spain fan to appreciate the brilliance of their 6-0 destruction of Croatia. You didn't need to know anything about the Spain team, or new coach Luis Enrique, to enjoy the beauty of their football. Even Croatia's most passionate supporter would have had to tip their hat to their opponents.
It was 90 minutes of football which had almost everything -- except of course the quality, guts and technique which took these bedraggled Croatians to the World Cup final.
Whether your taste is for dramatic last-second interventions (Dani Carvajal on Ivan Perisic with the score still 0-0), rocket-launched goals (a couple from Marco Asensio which suggested he either eats spinach straight from the can or he's got a horse-shoe hidden in his left boot), or gliding passing movements, Spain put on the whole repertoire from A-Z.
In its six previous versions, the fixture had produced a victory margin of two goals at best. This time the beaten Moscow finalists were torn to shreds, well beaten before half-time and looking utterly shell-shocked thanks to Spain's electrically quick passing, the perpetual motion from La Roja's midfield and a number of fine individual performances from the likes of Asensio, Isco and Saul.
But Luis Enrique's reaction, after his team picked up their second victory over a side that finished in the World Cup top four in the space of couple of days, was telling.
The Asturian stalked right past me in the tunnel about two minutes after the 6-0 win. Grim faced, with not a hint of triumph or satisfaction etched across it, Luis Enrique was already composing his thoughts about what he wanted to transmit.
This is the man who has a sports psychologist with him every second of his working day; rarely more than a few feet away, listening, taking notes, processing and then feeding back to the Spain boss what he said well, what might need refining and what to avoid next time.
The message to the assembled media, friendlier now than they were when his appointment was announced in July (surprise, surprise), was that: "The scoreline is spectacular but what I loved most was the attitude of my players".
He wasn't playing down Rodrigo's brilliantly timed run and finish, nor Isco's swivel to fill the top corner of the net, nor even the "distance is no object" attitude Asensio showed in the late first half when he patently thought he could have shot from 50 metres and beaten Croatia's helpless keeper.
Luis Enrique was pointing out that when Spain were being pressed and occasionally punctured, the work ethic, team spirit and intensity were all textbook.
The coach's plan is simple: harass the opposition, possess the ball, push forward, pass quickly, shoot as often as possible and double up in defensive duties. As Asensio said afterwards: "This was a collective victory -- we all attack and we all defend."
True enough. But the biggest thrill for the fans was the passing and the risk-taking, neither of which were seen at the World Cup Spain exited under a cloud of boredom and disinterest this summer.
A team and ethos which once owned the ball so they could own tournaments -- but which existed on the tightrope thrill of trying to split opponents' tightly squeezed lines, slip passes under parked buses and risk adventurous third-man moves and one-twos -- had suddenly become timorous, sluggish in possession and movement but also in thought.
From start to finish against Croatia, Spain looked back to their old selves. They boasted technical arrogance, confidence in both passing and tackling, many more resources and so much more invention than their opponents, even though the visitors sported Luke Modric and Ivan Rakitic in midfield.
Passes were risked, gaps were probed and the ball fizzed off Spanish boots as if two opposite ends of a magnet had been pushed together. But nothing showed Spain's newfound confidence more than the opening goal.
Defender Sergio Ramos, as guilty as anyone in Russia of failing to show either swash or buckle, twice played ultra-adventurous passes -- the first from the edge of his own penalty area while being pressed, and in a situation where if he'd got it wrong then he would probably have conceded a goal.
Nineteen times from Ramos' first "let's do this!" moment until the ball hit the net from Saul's absolutely brilliant leap and downward header, the passes flew from Spaniard to Spaniard.
It was thrilling, unbelievably fast and technical football. When a team plays like that, it reminds you how glorious this magnificent sort of football can be.
"When we pass like that there's nobody in the world who can stop us," one of the Spain squad said postmatch. Who was it? It doesn't really matter because they all believe it.
Spain are back. Big time.