Soccer-New-look Spain make Euro 2024 statement

By Fernando Kallas

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany (Reuters) - Spain have produced footballing masterclasses to clear two big hurdles impressively at the start of their Euro 2024 campaign, sending a statement to their fellow title challengers.

After hammering Croatia 3-0, they subjected defending champions Italy to a 1-0 defeat on Thursday that would have been a thrashing were it not for goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma who made several stunning saves to save his team from humiliation.

Spain enjoyed themselves while toying with a team who had given the impression they were making progress under manager Luciano Spalletti after coming from behind to beat Albania 2-1 in their opening game of the tournament.

Superb performances against high-level opponents are reviving memories of the all-conquering Spain who dominated world football for several years, winning back to back European Championships in 2008 and 2012 and the 2010 World Cup.

But Luis de la Fuente's Spain play another game, far from the possession-based "tiki-taka" style which became a trademark of the Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and Andres Iniesta generation of over a decade ago.

De la Fuente was a hard-working full back for Athletic Bilbao in the 1980s and after becoming head coach of Spain's academy system, he was given the chance to take charge of the senior squad with the unique advantage of knowing most of his players from a very young age.

A tough character with strong work ethic balanced by a good understanding of his players, De la Fuente has shown tactical nous and excellent man management skills in just over a year in the job.

The first step was seen when they won last year's UEFA Nations League with an much-changed squad from the one that disappointed under Luis Enrique at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Now, however, his team seem to have reached another level.

Their relentless high pressure combines with lightning fast one-touch moves and precise passes that give the impression of a squad in which each player has an almost instinctive feel for the positioning of his team mates.

"I know footballers very well, that's my best virtue. I know what they want, what they need to be happy and what I do is give it to them," De la Fuente told a press conference.

If he can keep his squad happy, Spain could be set for another golden era.

(Reporting by Fernando Kallas, editing by Ed Osmond)