Spain's Andres Iniesta, right, watches with teammates after Spain were defeated in a penalty shoot out by Russia in the round of 16 match between Spain and Russia at the 2018 soccer World Cup at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, July 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Spain can enjoy its siesta after another early elimination

July 02, 2018 - 11:25 am
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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Well, Spain can enjoy its siesta now.

There will be plenty of time for the Spaniards to figure out how to start regrouping following yet another early elimination at a major tournament.

And there will be plenty of blame to spread around in their spare time, too, following one of the national team's worst World Cup debacles.

The journey that started with an embarrassing coaching change before the tournament ended with the downfall of the "tiki-taka" style that was crucial to La Roja's triumph not too long ago. Mighty Spain couldn't get past Russia in the round of 16 on Sunday, being eliminated by the World Cup's lowest ranked team in a penalty shootout .

It didn't take long before the finger-pointing started, and there were plenty of targets: the newly elected federation president, the inexperienced new coach, the struggling goalkeeper, the aging members of the golden generation.

Even the team's commitment was questioned after Jorge "Koke" Resurreccion, who missed one of the penalties in the shootout, had said players didn't watch many of the World Cup games in part because they interfered with the siesta, Spain's traditional nap time.

The team looked somnolent as ever in Moscow against the 70th-ranked host, unable to break through Russia's defense and letting it all play out in a shootout following a 1-1 draw in regulation and extra time. Iago Aspas also missed a penalty and Russia prevailed 4-3.

It was Spain's third straight early elimination following disappointments at the 2014 World Cup — when it didn't make it past the group stage — and the 2016 European Championship, when it lost to Italy in the round of 16.

La Roja had dominated soccer before that, winning two consecutive Euros and the 2010 World Cup.

Here's a closer look at Spain's World Cup issues:

COACHING DRAMA

It all looked good for Spain entering the tournament, with coach Julen Lopetegui leading the team on a 20-match unbeaten streak and turning La Roja into one of the main title favorites.

But chaos hit when the soccer federation's newly elected president, Luis Rubiales, fired Lopetegui for accepting a job with Real Madrid without letting officials know in advance. Fernando Hierro, a former player who was acting as the federation's sporting director, was appointed as the team's new coach two days before the opening match against Portugal.

The move sparked an unprecedented crisis for Spain, with blame being shared by Lopetegui, Real Madrid and Rubiales himself.

"I don't regret the decision," Rubiales told Spanish media after Sunday's match. "It had to be made."

It didn't help Rubiales' cause when Hierro made the controversial decision to bench Andres Iniesta — a symbol of Spain's golden generation — against Russia. The playmaker entered the match in the second half and helped Spain improve, but it was too late.

"As the coach I'm the one responsible for what happened," Hierro said. "The players did their best, as always."

WHAT'S NEXT?

Rubiales has another difficult decision to make now — whether to keep Hierro or bring on another coach to continue revamping the national team. If he does make a change, will he go with the experience of a veteran or someone with fresh ideas?

Lopetegui, who had no significant experience with a major club but had won with Spain's youth squads, was proving to be the right choice for Spain until being axed before finishing his job.

"We wouldn't mind if Hierro continued," captain Sergio Ramos said.

Among the candidates rumored for the position was former Barcelona coach Luis Enrique.

YOUNGER TALENT

As the remaining members of Spain's old guard bid farewell in Russia, the spotlight again turned to the players expected to help Spain recover in the future, including Francisco "Isco" Alarcon and Marco Asensio.

But they won't have many of the veterans to help them, as Iniesta officially retired from the national team and many others are unlikely to be back for the next World Cup. Gerard Pique, blamed by many back home for the handball that led to Russia's equalizer in regulation, said before the tournament he wouldn't return to the national team.

"We have many great players for now and for the future," Hierro said.

GOALKEEPING FUTURE

David De Gea was among the players expected to lead the new generation, but he disappointed in Russia following a superb season with Manchester United.

He made only one save in four matches, and none in Sunday's shootout. He also made a bad mistake in the opener against Portugal, letting a weak shot from Cristiano Ronaldo go underneath him for a goal. He had already made a mistake in one of the team's warm-up matches before the tournament.

The team's reserve goalkeepers at the World Cup were veteran Pepe Reina and youngster Kepa Arrizabalaga.

CHANGE IN STYLE?

The tiki-taka ball-possession style that allowed Spain to dominate soccer not long ago proved inefficient in Russia, with the team's thousands of passes not yielding the goals it needed to advance.

Hierro said after taking over the squad he wouldn't change what had worked in the past, but it was unclear if he had changed his mind after Sunday's elimination.

Just as it remained unclear whether he would actually remain in charge, so it's still all up in the air for Spain a day after its latest World Cup debacle.

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More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

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

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