Spain vs Sweden preview: Youthful La Roja begin new era
Group E: Spain vs Sweden, kick-off 8pm (UK time, BBC1)
Winners of two of the last three European Championship tournaments, Spain kick off their campaign against Sweden tonight.
Luis Enrique’s side have not enjoyed the best preparation with their entire squad forced to isolate after captain Sergio Busquets tested positive for coronavirus.
The upshot was the Under-21 side being drafted in to thrash Lithuania 4-0 in Spain's final warm-up friendly.
Sweden, meanwhile, are without talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who came out of retirement only to be ruled out of the final squad by injury.
It has been a strange couple of years for La Roja, who have only lost one of their last 24 matches in all competitions — against Ukraine in the UEFA Nations League last October — yet still fail to convince fully.
Wins over Lithuania, Kosovo and Georgia this year have done little to enhance the national mood ahead of the tournament.
A goalless draw against Iberian neighbours Portugal has been their toughest recent test and Spain had the better chances, going closest through Alvaro Morata.
Sweden have won five straight in 2021 after losing six of eight in all competitions last year.
Beating Armenia, Estonia, Kosovo and Georgia will hardly set pulses racing but those wins ensure Janne Andersson’s men come into the tournament in buoyant mood.
New era for Spain
With just two players boasting 50 or more caps prior to the tournament, this is a new-look Spanish side with an eye on the future.
Ten members of Enrique’s squad have fewer than 10 caps with skipper Sergio Ramos missing after an injury-blighted campaign with Real Madrid.
Aymeric Laporte is one of the new faces after switching allegiance from France in the run-up to the tournament.
The Manchester City defender, 27, made his debut in the friendly against Portugal and will be expected to start at the heart of defence.
No Zlatan, no problem
With Ibrahimovic, 39, ruled out, Sweden’s main goal threat will be Alexander Isak, who plays his club football in Spain with Real Sociedad.
Isak, 21, who previously played for Borussia Dortmund and shone on loan at Willem II, has bagged 33 goals in 89 games for Sociedad over two seasons and is one of the hottest properties in LaLiga.
Quick, hard-working and blessed with plenty of skill, Isak had the fifth-best expected goals total (15.5) in LaLiga in 2020-21 and the third-best xG per 90 at 0.6.
He has already struck six times in 22 Swedish caps, most recently in wins over Kosovo and Russia.
Zlatan’s crown is in safe hands.
Who will be No1?
As part of Enrique’s overhaul, there is a question over who will be Spain’s No1 tonight.
Athletic Bilbao stopper Unai Simon got the nod against Portugal but there has since been speculation that Brighton’s breakout star Robert Sanchez will get the starting job.
Confusing matters further still, David de Gea is the man in possession of the physical No1 jersey for the finals.
Of the trio, only Sanchez finished the domestic season having bettered his post-shot expected goals conceded figure.
This metric measures the quality of chances faced by a goalkeeper, giving a value the average goalkeeper would have conceded. Sanchez should have conceded 30.8 goals but he shipped just 27, a ‘saving’ of 3.8 goals.
Simon (-4.4) and De Gea (-2.2) both underperformed, which will only add to Enrique’s dilemma.
Pragmatism over entertainment
Set up in a flat 4-4-2 usually ending up with six defensive players against the better teams, the accusation levelled against Sweden coach Andersson is he can be too cautious.
Against a Spain side with the attacking talents of Morata, Gerard Moreno, Ferran Torres, Mikel Oyarzabal, Adama Traore and Pablo Sarabia, that would be understandable.
The loss of Juventus winger Dejan Kulusevski to a positive coronavirus9 result is a blow but should ensure there is a place in midfield for the experienced Sebastian Larsson, who is 36 and still going with AIK.
These are two sides embarking on a new era. Victory for either will go a long way to progress and a successful launch.