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Saturday 08 Jun 2024
Spain are a quality team, says O’Neill

Spain may no longer have global superstars like Iniesta, Xavi, Villa, Ramos, Raul and Casillas in their ranks, but they are still very much a force to be reckoned with, according to Michael O’Neill.

Ahead of Northern Ireland’s game against Euros-bound Spain at Son Moix Stadium in Mallorca later today (8 June), the Northern Ireland boss said the Spanish squad may not be jam-packed with Real Madrid and Barcelona players these days but it nevertheless has considerable strength in depth.

He said having a spread of players from clubs outside the big two of Real Madrid and Barcelona has helped Spain mould a strong, impressive squad.

And he believes Spain will want to put on a show in their final warm-up game before they head to the UEFA Euro 2024 tournament in Germany next week.

The Spanish defeated Andorra 5-0 in a friendly on Wednesday night and O’Neill expects them to go in search of goals again.

More than 22,000 fans, including almost 1000 Northern Ireland supporters, will be in Estadi Mallorca San Moix for today’s international challenge match (8.30pm start UK time).

Spain have upped their game considerably since exiting the World Cup in Qatar at the last 16 stage some 18 months ago.

Under new coach Luis de la Fuente, who replaced Luis Enrique, they have won the UEFA Nations League and topped their qualifying group for Euro 2024.

Despite losing to Scotland early in the campaign, they scored 25 goals and conceded just five as they won seven out of their eight Euro qualifiers.

Northern Ireland have spent over a week training in the Murcia region of mainland Spain to prepare for the game in the Balearic Islands and a second friendly against Andorra in Murcia on Tuesday (11 June). They also trained at the Son Moix Stadium last night.

O’Neill revealed he has enjoyed working with the players for an extended period and insisted they are all “in good condition” ahead of the friendly.

He told media yesterday: "The work is not only valuable for this game, but we can build a template for a way to play consistently against teams who are viewed as stronger.

“When the World Cup qualifying comes around in March we will have to play teams of this calibre. It's about working on that side of our game.”

He said international football is often quite different to what players do with their clubs.

“I'm pleased with their attitude. When you've got young hungry players it's nice to work with that,” he added.

The Spanish squad is packed full of players who operate at the highest level in Europe. They include Manchester City’s tour de force Rodri, Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Fabian Ruiz and defender Alex Grimaldo of Bundesliga champions Bayer Leverkusen.

It also features the Barcelona quartet of Pedri, Ferran Torres, Fermin Lopez and Lamine Yamal along with Real Madrid trio Dani Carvajal, Joselu and Nacho Fernandez.

Chelsea wing-back Marc Cucurella and Arsenal goalkeeper David Raya, who is currently on loan at the Gunners from Brentford, are in the panel as well, although Athletic Bilbao keeper Unai Simon is ahead of Raya in the pecking order.

Spain are captained by Atletico Madrid striker Alvaro Morata, who has also played for Real Madrid, Juventus and Chelsea during his career. He has scored 34 goals in 72 appearances for his country.

Another dangerman is Real Sociedad attacker Mikel Oyarzabal, who scored a hat-trick in the win over Andorra. And RB Leipzig striker Dani Olmo also knows where the net is.

A couple of well-known former Manchester City players are in the Spanish squad, too. They include 38-year-old ex-winger Jesus Navas, who operates at right back these days for La Liga side Sevilla where he is club captain, and defender Aymeric Laporte, who plies his trade with Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia.

Ex-Newcastle United and Leicester City forward Ayoze Perez has made it into the Spain panel for the Euros, too. Perez, now with Real Betis in his homeland, scored on his international debut on Wednesday.