RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — An unexpectedly early World Cup exit has left Spanish football searching for a way to recapture its past success, while transitioning to a future without some of the players responsible for that former glory.
A 2-0 loss to Chile on Wednesday left Spain without hope of advancing to the second round, and become the first defending champion to be assured of elimination after just two group games. Monday's Group A finale against Australia could be either a send-off to its "tiki-taka" style of play, or a chance to make changes to a team that arrived in Brazil after winning consecutive European Championships, either side of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
"We reached the highest of heights and now we've reached the lowest," said Andres Iniesta, who scored the extra-time winner in the 2010 final victory over the Netherlands. Spain's players gave a number of reasons for their surprising capitulation, citing fatigue, a lack of work ethic and commitment, and waning desire. Long and mixed seasons for Spain's core group of Real Madrid and Barcelona players also seems to have caught up with the team in Brazil.
Casillas guided Madrid to Champions League and Copa del Rey triumphs, but has been a part-time 'keeper at the club, whose long and emotional season may have taken a toll on the normally reliable Alonso and Sergio Ramos.
Iniesta, Xavi, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Pedro Rodriguez all had a patchy season at Barcelona, which finished without a major trophy for the first time since 2008. "There could be a link since there were a lot of players from Barca who didn't do well here," Pedro said. "It was all very tough, here and Barcelona, and now we have to evaluate it all."
Coach Vicente del Bosque has called for a thorough — but patient — review over the summer before Euro 2016 qualifying begins. Xavi seems to be the only player certain to depart after Del Bosque left perhaps Spain's most important player during its recent run on the bench against Chile.
Xavi watched as Spain's midfield failed to connect with its forwards, something the 34-year-old player provided for the world champions during its winning run. Xavi, who has won 26 trophies over a glorious career, may have also been distracted as he is reportedly set to play in Qatar.
Casillas and Alonso may also be under pressure to step aside after terrible performances in Brazil. "The blame should be shared, starting with myself," Casillas acknowledged. "Altogether we weren't in the best shape," Alonso said. "We weren't at the level we needed to be and we deserve to be out."
The good news for Spain is that replacements are ready if the veterans step aside. Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago Alcantara's absence to injury was a major blow for Spain, as he can be seen as a natural successor to Xavi.
Atletico Madrid's Koke replaced Alonso against Chile and could have found his future role. There is also a crop of players from the Spain squad that won the European Under-21 Championship last year, including Real Madrid playmaker Isco and Athletic Bilbao midfielders Ander Herrera, Iker Muniain, and Ander Iturraspe.
Goalkeeper David de Gea is also poised for more playing time after being called into the team in Brazil. However, Spain's attack remains a concern as Brazilian-born Diego Costa did not provide the firepower expected.
David Villa, Spain's all-time leading scorer, will retire from international football after Brazil while Torres seems a shell of his former explosive self. Del Bosque ignored strikers Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo despite their positive club seasons.
"Surely some will stay and some will not for the next championship, but there's a great generation coming up, a young generation," Torres said. "Sometimes these kinds of failings are good for the future."
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