- Spain playing with an out-and-out striker again under Julen Lopetegui
- We look at the leading candidates for the role at Russia 2018
- Spain among the favourites for FIFA World Cup glory
Time is passing and Russia 2018 is moving ever closer. The players who hope to represent the 32 participating nations are striving to produce their best football, while the coaches are keeping a close eye on prospective candidates. Among them is Julen Lopetegui. Following a near-perfect qualifying campaign that has Spain fans dreaming of glory once more, the Roja coach faces a hard task in narrowing his numerous options down to a 23-man squad, not least because he has called on 48 players so far in his tenure.
Earning a place in the Spain set-up is no easy task, especially for anyone with designs on being the centre forward, a role revived under Lopetegui. With the odd exception – such as such as the qualifier against Italy at the Bernabeu – he has largely brought an end to the days in which Spain operated without an out-and-out target man.
As he continues to ponder his options up front, ahead of the friendlies against Germany and Argentina, FIFA.com looks at the leading contenders for the job and what they each have to offer.
29 | Club: Atletico Madrid
Call-ups under Lopetegui: eight
Appearances: 6 (468 minutes played) | Goals: 5
Lopetegui put his faith in the Brazilian-born striker as soon as he took over. Capable of troubling opposing defences all on his own, Costa is a tireless worker who has represented Spain for the last four years and played at Brazil 2014. As well as drawing central defenders out of position, he can also hold the ball up, play with his back to goal and make the most of any space available thanks to his power. Continuously on the move and probing for opportunities, he also has the knack of being in the right place at the right time.
Though his place at Russia 2018 was at risk following his return to Atletico Madrid, while he was sidelined on account of the Spanish club’s ban on registering new players, he is fitter and sharper than ever after boxing himself into shape in the gym. He has struck five goals in 11 matches since January.
What the coach says
“When he’s been playing for his teams we’ve always called on him and he’s always been an important player for us. He’s had a strange journey to get here, because he went without playing for six months, and we’re delighted with how he’s performing right now. He’s available, he’s playing and we obviously have him in mind.”
25 | Club: Chelsea
Call-ups under Lopetegui: 14
Appearances: 10 (430 minutes played) | Goals: 7
The Madrid-born striker is the second-most used front man by Lopetegui, having swapped with Costa on several occasions. Having left Real Madrid for Chelsea in search of the opportunities that would better his chances of making it to the world finals, he has scored 11 goals in 23 matches for the Londoners. Has nevertheless struggled with injury of late and has lost his starting place at Stamford Bridge.
Having learned to grapple with combative defences during his time in Italy, Morata is a skilled penalty-box operator who can also play as a lone striker and dovetail in with Spain’s well-grooved passing game. Despite his height, he is a technically-gifted forward with the pace and the dribbling skills to get past opposing defenders.
What the coach says
“The requirements of a new club and a new role at a club as demanding as Chelsea have forced him to keep improving and developing as a player, to be even more of a rounded player. That’s good for him, good for his club and good for the national team.”
30 | Club: Celta Vigo
Call-ups under Lopetegui: 12
Appearances: 7 (247 minutes played) | Goals: 4
The left-footed Celta man is the leading Spanish scorer in La Liga this season, with 16 goals in 26 games. Able to play down the flank, as a target man or in a slightly more withdrawn role, he is physically stronger than his slight frame suggests. Never one to shirk a challenge and always involved in the game, Aspas is not afraid to drop into midfield to win the ball back and get his team on the front foot again.
Deadly in one-on-one situations, Aspas has the character and the skills to lead by example when the occasion requires.
What the coach says
“He’s been part of the set-up for a while now and has been performing really well for us and his club. He can share the position with a wider player, which is what he does at Celta.”
The other pretenders
While Costa, Morata and Aspas are the players in pole position, they are not the only ones in with a chance of making the No9 job theirs. Since taking over, Lopetegui has called on the services of Rodrigo, who has 15 goals and seven assists to his name with Valencia this season and has featured in the last two squads. The Spain coach has also given opportunities to veteran marksman Aritz Aduriz, Pedro, Nolito and Gerard Deulofeu, while the likes of Mariano and Gerard Moreno are in form and in contention, casting even more doubt as to who will be handed the No9 jersey in Russia.