DOMINIC KING: Luis Enrique had joked that his Spain side were doing too well at the World Cup… now they face adversity – but he wants to feel more at home!
Luis Enrique started chuckling on Saturday at lunchtime when he was told things couldn’t get any better. A supercharged start to the group stage with a thumping win had led to whispers that he was shaping a team to conquer the world.
In the inimitable way, Enrique tried to cultivate the idea that two weeks of steady preparation and a 7-0 drubbing of Costa Rica did not actually provide the background he likes to work against.
‘I feel more comfortable when I face adversity!’ protested the former Barcelona head coach, with varying degrees of scepticism. “I have had very successful moments, but I perform at my best when it is difficult. The last two weeks have been so good… too good!’
Spain coach Luis Enrique joked that things had been going “too well” for his team recently
Spain now see themselves potentially needing a result against Japan to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup
Now he’s got his way. Spain, with the urging of Dani Olmo and the enduring class of Sergi Busquets, were seven minutes away from comfortably progressing into the knockout stages, but now find themselves in a position fraught with danger.
It shouldn’t have come to this for a man whose decisions are essentially beyond reproach. Enrique’s three substitutions early in the second period had allowed Alvaro Morata to steal a deserved opener, but their naivety left them in a situation that means Japan can knock them out.
Theoretically, this should be a situation he likes. It would be a disaster if a team capable of passing the ball like Spain, who have the youthful exuberance of Gavi and Pedri, found themselves heading home early instead of planning a trip to the Lusail Stadium on December 18.
Spain have some extravagantly talented players, but the reason they are potential contenders to follow in the footsteps of the 2010 heroes is because they have got the best head coach at the tournament, a man who can see the game from a different perspective.
Enrique guided Barcelona to their last Champions League triumph in 2015, one of five trophies they won in that memorable year; he showed that pedigree in the second period, making the switches that allowed Alvaro Morata to come off the bench and open the scoring.
With a lot riding on Spain’s final group stage next week, Enrique should be in a position he likes as a coach
A failure to take chances was ultimately their undoing and perhaps it could have been even worse if Unai Simon, their erratic goalkeeper, had been punished for some of the reckless passes he made that put Spain under pressure.
Simon could do nothing as Niclas Fullkrug slotted the equalizer past him, leaving Enrique spinning to the bench and throwing his hands up in despair. At the final whistle, however, he was completely composed and shared a wonderful exchange with Hansi Flick.
Three times these two men went to each other to acknowledge the effort that had gone into an absorbing contest. And if anyone was able to dissect the vagaries of sport and where they stand in life, it’s Enrique.
November 28 was, tragically, the day his little girl Xana died in 2019 after a short illness. No parent should ever have to endure that pain, but he and his family have borne this burden with great dignity. When he talks about difficulties in sports, he knows how trivial it all really is.
He has built a team full of exciting talents and good ball players, such as Pedri (pictured)
Niclas Fullkrug’s late equalizer for Germany against Spain has set up an exciting finish to the Group E table