EURO 2020: Luis Enrique banking on Spain’s youth movement

BARCELONA, Spain — “Tiki-taka” is over, and Spain coach Luis Enrique is ready to move on.

Since winning back-to-back European Championships with the 2010 World Cup title in between, Spain has been a flop at major soccer tournaments as the team’s aging veterans lost their luster.

Luis Enrique, who first took over the national team following the debacle at the 2018 World Cup, has not shied away from rejuvenating the squad with little-known players in their early 20s. He even left veteran Sergio Ramos off his squad after the injury problems the Real Madrid defender had this season.

“There have been some young players who have surprised us,” Luis Enrique said. “We still have the potential to grow a lot more. I don’t know what will happen, yet I don’t deny that we are favorites (in the group), but not because of what we have done, but rather for the achievements of those who came before us. I am not afraid of this challenge.”

Luis Enrique has experimented in practically every position all year, so new faces will be expected when Spain plays Sweden, Poland and Slovakia in Group E — all in Seville.

The coach’s new pool of attacking players includes Manchester City’s Ferran Torres (21), Leipzig’s Dani Olmo (23), Barcelona’s Pedri González (18), and Wolverhampton’s Adama Traoré (25).

Questions, however, remain about who will carry the scoring load for a team that has been without a top striker since the international retirements of David Villa and Fernando Torres.

Álvaro Morata has 19 goals in 39 appearances for Spain, but the Juventus striker has never excelled at a major tournament. Gerard Moreno scored 30 goals for Villarreal and helped the team win the Europa League this season, but even at the age of 29 he is still untested in a major competition. The same doubt goes for Mikel Oyarzabal, who helped Real Sociedad win the postponed 2020 Copa del Rey title in April. Barcelona phenomenon Ansu Fati is injured.

Even though veteran holdover Sergio Busquets can again anchor the midfield, he will be accompanied by more dynamic players who look more for a quick strike than the suffocating ball possession practiced by the great Spain teams of the past.

The major concern in Spain’s defense. Ramos, one of the main holdovers from the title-winning days, took the team’s penalty kicks and provided on-field leadership.

With 180 games for Spain, Ramos has the most appearances for a European nation and had been on track to break Egypt player Ahmed Hassan’s world record of 184.

Luis Enrique had already been worrying about who would fill the center of his four-man defense, and Ramos’ absence makes that even harder. He has tried out City’s Eric García and Villarreal’s Pau Torres.

So the national team got a big boost when center back Aymeric Laporte switched allegiance from France to Spain, where he played for Athletic before joining City.

Unai Simón, Athletic’s 23-year-old goalkeeper, has relegated David de Gea to a backup role. But Luis Enrique could be tempted to try something new in Spain’s friendly matches before the tournament starts.

All three of Spain’s group matches will be played in front of some home fans in Seville — though limited in number because of the pandemic. The host team opens play against Sweden on June 14 and then faces Poland on June 19 and Slovakia on June 23.

As the fans there will surely know, Spain is capable of both big wins and big disappointments.

The Spanish routed Germany 6-0 in the Nations League in November, but also drew 1-1 with Greece at home in World Cup qualifying in March.

“We have a young side, which wants to grow, and is hungry,” Luis Enrique said. “I don’t know how far we will go; if we will reach the final, or if we will only make it to the semifinals, or the quarterfinals, or not even get out of the group phase.

“But one thing I do know is that we will be a tough rival to play against that will make it uncomfortable for our opponents.”

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