No centre-forward, no Real Madrid players… and no chance according to his critics, but Luis Enrique intends to plough on regardless as he tries to build on Spain’s semi-final appearance at last summer’s Euros.
It’s exactly three months to the day since Spain were beaten by Italy on penalties in the semi-final at Wembley and while there are new faces such as 17-year-old Gavi and 18-year-old Yeremy Pino there is also plenty that hasn’t changed.
Manchester City forward Ferran Torres, Real Sociedad winger Mikel Oyarzabal and Leipzig’s Dani Olmo shared false nine responsibilities three months ago. Tonight West Ham’s Pablo Fornals replaces the injured Olmo, but there is still no out-an-out centre-forward.
Luis Enrique will be hoping his Spain team – with no centre-forward – can get past Italy tonight
West Ham’s Pablo Fornals will lead the line for Spain tonight in their revenge mission vs Italy
In part the absence is justified. Spain isn’t exactly blessed with options in that position right now. Iago Aspas, Rafa Mir and Raul de Tomas are probably the best three not currently injured.
With Aspas there seem to be an irreparable clash of personalities and the player has scored only two goals this season so if he wasn’t picked for the Euros last summer then he was never going to be considered now.
The jury is still out on Rafa Mir since his move to Sevilla. He started well coming off the bench but the former Wolves forward has been less effective since an injury to Youssef En-Nesyri made his place in the first team at Sevilla assured. There is a reliance on service as opposed to ability to make something out of nothing that goes against him in comparison to the coach’s false-nine options.
Espanyol’s Raul de Tomas scored at the weekend and has perhaps the strongest claim but all have been ignored with the emphasis on wingers finishing like centre-forwards in the few chances Italy are likely to concede.
The jury is still out on Rafa Mir, who moved from Wolves to Sevilla but isn’t starring just yet
Espanyol’s Raul de Tomas has a strong claim to be in the squad but has so far been ignored
Not only are there no centre-forwards, there are no Real Madrid players either. Just as Luis Enrique can point to the lack of viable alternatives in terms of picking an out-an-out No 9 so too can he highlight the lack of selectable talent at Madrid. Even some Real Madrid supporters would struggle to suggest which of their players the coach should be picking.
Pino and Gavi are in the squad but not expected to start. The former was one of the revelations last season in Unai Emery’s Europa League winning Villarreal team and has also been superb for the Under-21s.
Gavi will break records if he plays tonight. Aged 17 years and 62 days he will become Spain’s youngest ever player if he comes on. Luis Enrique has watched him emerge through various youth levels and he is player who looks set to accompany Pedri in Barcelona’s midfield for years to come.
Pedri, absent tonight, is the new guardian of Spain’s style, Gavi is cut from the same cloth and another who embodies it is the man on whose shoulders most of the scoring expectation are placed: Luis Enrique believes in Ferran much as Pep Guardiola does.
Yeremy Pino looks set to be one of the bright stars of Spanish football but won’t start just yet
Enrique believes in Ferran Torres (right) as much as Man City boss Pep Guardiola does
Like the fellow Barcelona coach his playing philosophy seems to increasingly resemble, he believes in the 21-year-old winger’s ability to make that transition from talented wide man to prolific scorer.
Torres scored eight goals in his first 15 games for Spain which was as good a start to an international career as the country’s all-time top scorer David Villa.
He’s a player who oozes self-confidence, a quality that extended to his opinion of his team-mates and got the better of him during the Euros when he said Spain defenders would ‘eat up’ Robert Lewandowski.
He was reminded of those words after the Pole scored the equalizer in the 1-1 draw between the two teams and duly apologised: ‘If I offended anyone I want to say sorry,’ he said. ‘Lewandowski has always been a role model for me as a player.’
It is hoped 21-year-old Torres can transition from talented wide man to prolific scorer
Fornals is set to start over Pablo Sarabia after an impressive start to the season at West Ham
He’s not going to become a Lewandowski – how Spain would benefit from such a player right now – but he does have the attributes to play through the middle. Guardiola believes it and so does Luis Enrique.
This is a player who already knows what it’s like to score a hat-trick against Germany (in Spain’s 6-0 win over them almost a year ago on route to this Nations League final) and he must bear the goals burden tonight.
Along with LaLiga’s second top scorer Oyarzabal and Fornals who should start just ahead of Pablo Sarabia, Spain will look to get the better of the team that beat them at Wembley.
Enrique will be on the sidelines hoping his Spain team can pull off a huge victory against Italy
There will be no Pedri pulling the strings behind but they will have the experienced pairing of Koke and Sergio Busquets and former Newcastle midfielder Mikel Merino. Luis Enrique’s loyalty to Busquets and the fact that he has called up both the out of form Barca pair Eric Garcia and Sergi Roberto only adds fuel to the flames when it comes to the manager being anti-Real Madrid.
Taking pressure off his players ahead of the game Luis Enrique was keen to point out that the more important matches will come next month against Greece in Athens and against Sweden in Seville because they are the matches that will help determine if Spain make it to the next World Cup.
But he knows how Spain fares in this semi-final will set the tone for those games. He intends to do it his way with Ferran, Fornals, and the false-nine regardless of the doubters. Italy will test those unshakeable principles to the limit.