Spain will be heading to Russia next June to compete in their eleventh consecutive World Cup tournament. Their qualification was confirmed after beating Albania in Alicante last Friday; the win means that Spain have beaten Italy to first place of group G, sentencing them to a second-placed finish and a play-off game.
On Friday, manager Julen Lopetegui made some changes to the side that faced Liechtenstein last month, giving an international debut to Real Sociedad full-back Álvaro Odriozola. Striker Rodrigo was also given the nod and he started up front for the first time since his appearance against Luxembourg nearly three years ago. Atlético midfielder Saúl was introduced to the side, although this was slightly less surprising given his recent form.
Spain looked threatening in Friday’s game from the first whistle; Rodrigo justified his reintroduction when in the 16th minute he turned in a clever half-volley and put the hosts ahead.
Isco doubled the lead just seven minutes later. He smashed the ball into the roof of the net after some clever play from David Silva and Koke, scoring his fifth goal of qualifying in the process. An unlikely header from Thiago in the 27th minute put the game out of reach for Albania. The goal, which was assisted by debutant Odriozola, put the game to bed and Spain were able to sit off for the remaining minutes.
Several clear chances fell to Rodrigo in the second half, and he will be disappointed not to have scored two or three on his return to international football. He was replaced in the 81st minute by Athletic Bilbao striker Aritz Aduriz.
Each touch that centre-back Gerard Piqué took was met with a series of whistles and cheers. The Barcelona defender, whose comments on Catalonian independence caused controversy among some fans, was replaced by Nacho in just the 57th minute. Any slim hopes that Italy had of catching Spain were destroyed after they dropped points in an unexpected draw against Macedonia in Turin on Friday.
With one game remaining the fate of Spain and Italy had already been decided. Spain were to gain automatic qualification and Italy would have to play a play-off fixture to determine whether they will join Spain in Russia next year.
Pride and practice in Israel
Spain’s final game in Jerusalem was for pride and practice more than points. Neither Israel nor Spain had anything to play for and unsurprisingly, Spain’s starting eleven was barely recognisable. Sergio Ramos was the only player in the squad on Monday who featured against Albania last Friday. It was a solitary goal from midfielder Illarramendi that separated the two sides, giving Spain their ninth win in ten qualifying fixtures. Spain topped the group in incredible fashion, dropping just two points when they drew 1-1 to Italy last October.
With young talent in Asensio, Isco and new face Odriozola, Spain will look to improve on their recent tournament woes that have led to disappointing exits in Euro 2016 and the 2014 World Cup.