It’s extremely unfortunate that just when Spain desperately need a jack-in-the-box, it’s a few jackals who’ve popped up instead. That “jack-in-the-box” can be defined as any player with the golden ability to suddenly shock opponents with a crucial, match-turning goal.

Not simply because, right now, that’s La Roja’s glaringly obvious Achilles heel. But especially because their Nations League semifinal opponents this week are Italy. Notoriously savvy, and ruthlessly organised defensively at the best of times, Italy have played out 1-1 or 0-0 draws in seven of their last 14 matches against Spain. It’s squeaky tight between these two.

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La Roja’s likeable, decent and relatively new coach Luis de la Fuente (don’t worry if you’ve not heard of him because his talent makes up for his lack of celebrity) needs one of his guys to produce clutch goals, so that he’s not clutching at straws as far as his job security goes. The jackal reference is because, just two matches into the Basque manager’s tenure in charge of the national team, a group of journalists on a popular Spanish radio show hosted a discussion where several of them elbowed each other out of the way to testify that unless the ex-Athletic Club “Lion” (the Bilbao club’s nickname) won this match, and in fact this tournament, it was likely he’d be sacked.

The “El Larguero” reporters, on Cadena SER, claimed, without quoting anyone directly, that some Spain players and “some in the Spanish Federation” viewed De La Fuente as having been “overwhelmed” by the matches against Norway (a 3-0 win) and Scotland (a 2-0 loss). They reckoned his job was already on the line. Having had two, I emphasise, two matches in charge at that point.

I mean, let’s be honest: it’s far from De La Fuente’s fault that Spain have gone a bit dry recently. Across their last 33 matches, albeit that they include the relative successes of reaching the Euro 2020 semifinals and Nations League 2021 final, the 2010 world champions have scored either only once or not at all. That includes each of their last three tournament eliminations: out on penalties, to Italy, after a 1-1 draw at the Euros; out on penalties after a 0-0 draw against Morocco in the last World Cup; and beaten 2-1 against France in the Nations League final in San Siro a year-and-a-half ago.

Three big, credible trophy opportunities — all squandered for the lack of a crucial goal here or there. Either in normal time, extra time or from the penalty spot in a shootout. It’s not quite chronic — but those luxury days of David Villa and Fernando “El Nino” Torres, two free-scoring repeat trophy-winning strikers, for club and country, up front together are long gone.

Nor is it De La Fuente’s fault that their natural goal phenomenon, Ansu Fati, has had his already record-breaking career (he’s only 20) shudderingly halted by three operations which have failed to solve a problem with his meniscus. Youngest scorer for Barcelona, a precocious scorer in the Champions League, second-youngest scorer for Spain — Ansu is all of these.

He was also Barcelona’s second-top scorer this season — but his seven goals came in 1,378 minutes spread across 36 LaLiga appearances, making it clear that Spain legend Xavi Hernandez, his Camp Nou coach, didn’t have great faith in him while Barca were winning the title. Ansu wasn’t even in this Nations League squad originally — but joined to deputise for the injured Nico Williams.

Nor is it De La Fuente’s fault that Pedri, probably Spain’s best footballer, even at only 20 years old, is absent and injured, again. And Gerard Moreno? An absolutely fabulous, experienced, dangerous, mean-eyed striker finished the season fighting off injuries and won’t be ready for this tournament.

And if we’re mounting a case against those who want to detract and attack (we are,) then isn’t it kudos to Spain’s 61-year-old coach, who won LaLiga twice as a robust defender for Athletic Club and who has lifted trophies twice for Spain (the U19 and U21 Euros in 2015 and 2019) that he’s coaxed Joselu‘s first two international goals out of him?



Moreno: Spain has zero threats with their attack

Alejandro Moreno breaks down what went wrong for Spain in their loss to Scotland.

This is a 33-year-old who’s been relegated the last two seasons (Alaves and Espanyol) but, having shone a decade ago with Real Madrid B, has kicked around relatively minor teams scoring only a handful of goals each season. Yet De La Fuente promoted him, brought him on against Norway in what was a debut match with the national team for both coach and striker, to watch Joselu score twice in five minutes to seal a 3-0 win.

Any credit for that? According to those radio reporters apparently not.

Joselu’s 16 league goals this season, even in a relegation campaign, stands in good comparison with almost anyone in Roberto Mancini’s Italy squad, marking the striker down as good investment of time and faith from his under-threat international boss.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that it might all come down to Alvaro Morata again. It’s something of a Romeo and Juliet story between the 30-year-old Madrileno and Italy. Truly a love affair — but two directly opposed houses right now. Disapproval ready to rain down on him from both sides.

Morata has lived in Italy, played for Juventus (twice), scored for the Vecchia Signora in a Champions League final, fallen in love with an Italian woman, married in Venice, and Alice Campello is mother to his three kids. The twins, Alessandro and Leonardo basically support Italy — I know because Morata told me so.

He’s got a chequered history when crossing swords with the Azzurri. During Euro 2016 in France, he was a recently departed Juve player and his ex-teammates, Gigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli, effectively told the press beforehand they’d put him in their pocket. And then they did. They as good as called him ”soft” and “naive.” It was a no-contest. Then, two years ago, in the delayed Euro 2020 semifinal at Wembley, Morata scored to tie the match, but failed to convert the crucial penalty in the shootout. Italy progressed, while Spain and Morata went out.

Now, he’s promoted to captain, and he’s tougher, too. He’ll prefer to remember winning the U21 Euros final in 2013 against Italy (only starring Marco Verratti from Thursday’s Azzurri squad) and he’ll prefer to disappoint his wife and kids by winning. If he can do that, if he can complete his side of the forbidden love story, Spain vs. Italy instead of Capulets against Montagues, then he’ll have a final to play in — and Luis de la Fuente almost certainly won’t have to fear for his job.

Good luck to both of them.

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Can Spain bounce back vs. Italy in Nations League semifinal?