MADRID, Spain, Mar 28 – Spain blew Argentina away on Tuesday but coach Julen Lopetegui insists they can take nothing for granted at this summer’s World Cup.
A 6-1 demolition, which included an Isco hat-trick at the Wanda Metropolitano, underlined Spain’s credentials as one of the tournament favourites in Russia, while exposing Argentina, who were without the injured Lionel Messi.
Diego Costa was back in Spain’s starting line-up for the first time in eight international matches and he marked his return with the opening goal.
Isco then scored twice either side of what proved to be no more than a consolation from Argentina’s Nicolas Otamendi, before Thiago Alcantara, substitute Iago Aspas and Isco’s third completed the rout.
“I am very satisfied with a win against the finalists of the previous World Cup,” Lopetegui said. “It is an opponent that has a fantastic history, but nothing else, it does not change anything, we have to start the World Cup with zero points (in the group stage).”
As irresistable as Spain were going forward, Argentina were lamentable at the back and coach Jorge Sampaoli will have questions to answer with the World Cup less than three months away.
“I have to take responsibility,” Sampaoli said.
He might cling to the hope of Messi, whose hamstring strain meant he was not even in the squad, instead left to watch on from the stands.
“Leo trained with us, he had a very good week of workouts but still had some discomfort in his leg,” Sampaoli said.
Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria were also out injured but Argentina’s problem was less creating chances than containing Spain’s as Costa, Isco and Marco Asensio simply proved too quick to catch.
Asensio is likely still to give way to David Silva but Costa showed he is ready to be Spain’s main striker, this game completing his reintegration after an autumn disrupted by his Chelsea departure.
– Harrowing night for Argentina –
It was a harrowing night for Argentina but perhaps not a good one either for Alvaro Morata. Costa’s goal, coming before Aspas entered as a substitute to score one and set up two more, meant the Chelsea forward was hardly missed.
“We decided to put Diego in, we thought it was what we needed,” Lopetegui said. “In the second half, Diego had a problem and we wanted to see Iago. They will both be full of confidence, along with all the players that come with us.”
The victory also means Spain have now scored in all their 18 games under Lopetegui, a new record for a Spanish coach.
Without Messi, Gonzalo Higuain was the visitors’ principle threat up front, with Ever Banega, Maximiliano Meza and Giovani Lo Celso given the chance to impress behind him in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
For Spain, Lopetegui adopted a 4-3-3, with Isco and Asensio either side of Costa, and Thiago, Andres Iniesta and Koke again forming an attacking midfield trio.
In a week where the Catalan crisis continued to dominate the Spanish headlines, Barcelona’s Gerard Pique was whistled by the home fans whenever he received possession.
There were applauds too from some sections of the crowd and the jeers were temporarily drowned out by cheers when a thundering Pique tackle prevented a threatening Argentina break.
For the first goal, Costa put his body where others might not, bundling the ball in between the leaping Fabricio Bustos and goalkeeper Sergio Romero, the latter forced off as a result and replaced by Willy Caballero.
Cabellero was then at fault for Spain’s second, as his poor clearance landed at the feet of Thiago. Three passes later, the last from Asensio, allowed Isco to sidefoot home.
Argentina pulled one back before half-time when Otamendi headed in Banega’s cross but their defence would only keep them competitive for so long.
With Costa substituted, Aspas made an instant impact, setting up Isco and then Thiago, before scoring himself after De Gea’s long pass.
Isco guided into the corner for his hat-trick in the 74th minute. Argentina looked relieved when the final whistle blew.