FORTALEZA, Brazil (Reuters) - Although Barcelona and Real Madrid failed to win the Champions League last season, many of the same players have forgotten what it is like to lose when they are united in the red shirts of Spain.
The world and European champions’ 3-0 win over African champions Nigeria at the Estadio Castelao on Sunday meant they finished top of their group with maximum points and reinforced the belief that next Sunday’s Confederations Cup final will be between them and the other group winners, hosts Brazil.
Spain and Brazil have been the best two teams in the competition and while the Confederations Cup may not be high on the list of everyone’s priorities, winning it would give Spain a clean sweep of every international honour available.
Wins in the 2008 and 2012 European championships and the World Cup three years ago have put Spain’s trophy cabinet almost at full capacity, but there is one space left for the last of the missing silverware - the Confederations Cup.
Coach Vicente Del Bosque would not be drawn on the possibilities of winning it after Sunday’s comfortable victory over Nigeria, and gave little away about their chances in the semi-final against Italy.
“It will be tough as they are seeking revenge after losing 4-0 to us in last year’s European final,” he said.
Del Bosque, 62, does not have to say much as his team do the talking for him.
They look set to extend their long unbeaten competitive run of 28 matches and they have not lost to the Italians in 25 games.
The last team to beat Spain competitively were Switzerland who produced a 1-0 upset at the 2010 World Cup.
Spain now seem to be playing with even more confidence, authority and at times sheer brilliance, than a year ago.
Consistency is key with eight of the side that beat Italy last year starting against Nigeria. The only absentees were Iker Casillas (rested), Xabi Alonso (injured) and David Silva, who started as a substitute on Sunday but replaced Pedro for the last 15 minutes.
They may not play the most sparkling football ever seen, but their possession game is a highly effective one which produces delightful passages of play at regular intervals.
Jordi Alba’s two excellent goals against Nigeria which came either side of Fernando Torres’s fifth goal of the tournament had all the trademarks of the world’s best team.
Eight Barcelona players also started against Nigeria - the most from one club since eight from Barca played against Poland in 1959.
Sergio Ramos and Alvaro Arbeloa of Real Madrid and Roberto Soldado of Valencia made up the rest to form effectively a 4-4-2 variation to their normal 4-2-3-1 plan.
Playmaker Xavi remains Spain’s pivot point, with the likes of Andres Iniesta on the left and Silva on the right tormenting defences with their creativity and Cesc Fabregas relishing the freedom to roam.
David Villa was Spain’s leading marksman at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, but despite his hat-trick against minnows Tahiti, has not been the same player since he broke his leg in 2011 and Del Bosque has had to look elsewhere for goals.
Fabregas has netted a host of vital strikes, despite Sunday’s inexplicable first-half miss against Nigeria, and this season Pedro has become one of the team’s most reliable forwards.
Del Bosque has experimented with several other out-and-out strikers including Alvaro Negredo, Fernando Llorente and Soldado, who has done well in his two starts this tournament, but missed two good chances on Sunday.
Torres, who scored 23 goals for Chelsea last season, can also not be forgotten and continues to find the back of the net despite the criticism that has been thrown his way.
In defence, Ramos has switched into the middle from right back and has now built one of the best central defensive partnerships in soccer alongside Gerard Pique.
Arbeloa is a reliable performer at right back and with Alba replacing Joan Capdevila, Spain have one of the quickest and most attack-minded left backs around.
Alba’s brace against Nigeria also highlights that Spain can score from anywhere, just another reason to suggest they are still the best as they close in on another title.
Additional reporting by Iain Rogers in Madrid, editing by Ed Osmond