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at the Union Buildings in Pretoria

Spain already eyeing Euro 2016

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Juan Mata of Spain, centre, celebrates scoring his team's third goal with teammates Sergio Ramos, left, and Cesc Fabregas during their Group B clash against Australia. Photo: Ian Walton

Curitiba, Brazil - Spain will not have much time to dwell on its unexpectedly short World Cup campaign, as it targets a third-straight European championship.

Spain closed Group B with a 3-0 victory over Australia on Monday, and the team immediately put the focus on France 2016 and beyond.

“We've got a new challenge and we need all of your support! To defend the European Championship trophy!” the team's official Twitter feed wrote out on the same day it avoided becoming the first world champion to finish its defense with no points.

Spain's time in Brazil may have been different if it had started with Australia rather than the Netherlands, whose 5-1 walloping not only upset the balance of world football but sent doubts surging through Spain's squad - a sensation it hasn't experienced since the 2006 World Cup, the last time it failed to triumph at a major international tournament. It followed up the defeat to the Dutch with a 2-0 loss against Chile, which it had never lost against since their first meeting in 1950.

How Spain deals with the fallout from what can only be termed a disastrous World Cup - when it finished third in Group B, out of contention - could determine whether it travels to France in two years as a favourite, or as a team in transition.

Coach Vicente del Bosque's contract runs until 2016 but his handling of tactics and personalities exposed some fractions inside the team, and it may prove tough for the 63-year-old former Real Madrid coach to maintain the desire and hunger that was lacking in the squad in Brazil.

Del Bosque stuck with veterans who had won back-to-back European titles and the 2010 World Cup when there was a wealth of young talent pushing to break into the team.

“Time will tell if we made a mistake or not,” goalkeeper Pepe Reina said. “I hope the team reacts positively (to Brazil) and shows personality again.”

The early exit in Brazil may offer a chance to usher in change.

Thiago Alcantara was slated to play a prominent role before injury kept him out of Brazil, and the Bayern Munich midfielder should be the nucleus which Del Bosque builds around, much like former coach Luis Aragones did with Xavi Hernandez.

Isco was surprisingly left out of the preliminary squad, but it will be hard for Spain to ignore the Real Madrid playmaker again given how much the team struggled to penetrate opponent's areas and produce goals with its possession game. Madrid also has promising young players in fullback Dani Carvajal and forward Jese Rodriguez pushing for national selection.

The inclusion of naturalised striker Diego Costa did not boost the attack, and the Atletico Madrid striker may be in fight to retain his place against the likes of Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo.

Barcelona's Gerard Deulofeu appears to have caught Del Bosque's eye, while Athletic Bilbao midfielders Ander Herrera and Ander Iturraspe could be in the mix come September when qualifying for Euro 2016 begins.

Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea will challenge captain Iker Casillas, who is these days is the second-string goalie at Real Madrid.

The depth of options suggests Spain's era may not be over yet, and the team can absorb the exit of striker David Villa and speculation that Casillas, Xavi and Xabi Alonso could also retire from international play.

“There's been a lot of talk, too much, about things that were not true. The only reason we were eliminated was our play,” midfielder Juan Mata said.

Spain's reign may be over, but “tiki-taka” is not dead considering what the future could bring.

“We have to take the next step with Euro qualifying now, and whoever is coach knows the future is bright,” said Del Bosque, who will make a decision about his future before qualifying begins. “We have to feel confident about the future.”

Sapa-AP


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