- Associated Press - Friday, September 8, 2017

MADRID (AP) - It’s time to start taking Spain seriously again.

After struggling with its aging squad in the last two major soccer tournaments, Spain is on its way back to the top thanks to a group of talented young players and a promising coach.

“La Roja” is playing well again led by coach Julen Lopetegui and youngsters such as Marco Asensio, Francisco “Isco” Alarcon and Alvaro Morata.

Its revamped team is safely in position to secure a World Cup spot for next year’s tournament in Russia, and it will certainly be among the title favorites if it continues to succeed.

Spain is unbeaten under Lopetegui, having won eight of its 12 games since he took over following the team’s elimination early in the 2016 European Championship. It has outscored its opponents 40-7 with Lopetegui in charge, with high-profile victories over Italy, France and Belgium, and draws at England and against Colombia.

“There is always room for improvement,” Lopetegui said. “But ever since I got here I’ve said that I was happy with the attitude, the mentality and the commitment of these players. This team is playing with a lot of confidence.”

Spain was the team to beat in soccer for almost a decade, having won three major titles in a row - back-to-back European Championships in 2008 and 2012, and the World Cup in 2010.

No nation could challenge Spain’s captivating ball-possession style, played to perfection by the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso.

But its dominance eventually started to fade as some of its key players began to age.

The team’s first disappointment came at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when it was eliminated in the group stage after embarrassing performances.

Then came Euros 2016 in France, with Spain still under veteran coach Vicente Del Bosque but already without the status of an indisputable favorite. It made it past the group stage but was eliminated by Italy in the last 16 in a game in which it never had a real chance.

It was clear the national team needed to be refreshed, and the process started when the 51-year-old Lopetegui was brought in to replace Del Bosque after Euros 2016.

Lopetegui’s only experience in charge of a top European club was with Portugal’s FC Porto from 2014-16, when he wasn’t able to win much. But the former goalkeeper had done well with Spain’s youth teams, winning the under-19 European title in 2012 and the under-21 European title a year later.

Many of the players thriving now were coached by Lopetegui in the youth teams, including Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea, Chelsea striker Morata and Real Madrid forward Isco.

The 25-year-old Isco has been key for Spain’s revival, successfully taking over the team’s playmaking role and becoming an indisputable starter for Lopetegui.

He scored twice in Spain’s resounding 3-0 win over Italy in a qualifier in Madrid last week, and once in the 8-0 rout at Liechtenstein, helping the nation solidify its group lead in European qualifying and taking his scoring tally to five goals in the last five games with the national team.

“This is not surprising,” Lopetegui said. “Isco has talent and he is a great player. He has been developing just the right way in his career. We know that he will be able to help us.”

The 24-year-old Morata, who played for Juventus and Real Madrid before moving to Chelsea, scored the third goal in the qualifier against Italy, and added two more against Liechtenstein.

The other key youngster for Spain’s future is Asensio, the 21-year-old forward who is Madrid’s leading scorer through the first weeks of the season with four goals in five matches.

He started against Italy and played well alongside Isco, switching back and forth as a “false 9” in an attacking scheme that has proven successful for Lopetegui.

Other youngsters ready to help Spain get back in contention for major titles include Barcelona’s Gerard Deulofeu and Atletico Madrid’s Saul Niguez, although Lopetegui hasn’t quite given up on his veterans.

Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and David Silva remain with an important role in the midfield, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique are still crucial in the defense.

Nine of the players called up by Lopetegui for the latest qualifiers also participated in the winning campaign at Euros 2012: Iniesta, Busquets, Silva, Ramos, Pique, Jordi Alba, David Villa, Pedro Rodriguez and reserve goalkeeper Pepe Reina. Seven of them are 30 or older already, with the exception of Busquets and Alba.

Fans had been growing increasingly concerned as the team kept getting older and the victories were becoming elusive.

But thanks to Lopetegui and the thriving youngsters such as Isco, Asensio and Morata, there is plenty of hope for La Roja to get back to its glory days.


Tales Azzoni on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tazzoni

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