This time last year, few Spanish fans or pundits could say with certainty who would be playing left-back for La Roja at Euro 2012.
Joan Capdevila played there in 2008 and 2010, offering both defensive solidity and important width to Spain’s attacks down that flank, but thereafter quickly faded from the scene, and Vicente Del Bosque’s search for a replacement had stalled.
Alvaro Arbeloa was tried there in qualifying, but as a right-footer offered little attacking threat on the left. Malaga’s Nacho Monreal had been around the squad a few seasons without nailing down a place. Espanyol’s Didac Vila impressed for the victorious Spanish U21s last summer, but was still a bit raw for the senior side. Liverpool’s Jose Enrique had more backers in England and Ireland than in Spain.
For the final qualifier at home to Scotland in October, Del Bosque overlooked all these and instead called up Valencia’s promising Jordi Alba, then aged 22.
The debutant took only six minutes to set up the opening goal for David Silva. Since then he has started every game for Spain, and is challenging Germany’s Philipp Lahm hard as the best full-back of Euro 2012.
Before his first cap, Alba’s development was less direct. Born in Hospitalet de Mar near Barcelona, he entered the Catalan club’s La Masia youth academy, but was released at 16 years old. Unbowed, he joined junior side Cornella and Valencia saw enough to sign him for €6,000 in 2008. He next spent a year on loan with second tier Nastic before joining Los Che’s first team squad for the 2009/10 season.
Part of the reason for the stop-start beginning was that Alba never really wanted to be a defender.
“As a boy, I always wanted to have the ball,” he told Marca this week. “I did not play on the flank, not as a winger or as a full-back, that came later. I was a ‘mediapunta’ then, playing in the centre. I wanted to be like Stoichkov, Laudrup and Zidane. I liked to pass and to shoot. Now I play much quicker, more at pace.”
After one season as a bit-part winger, Valencia coach Unai Emery made the decision to relocate Alba to left-back during an injury crisis. Although small, at 5ft 7ins, he adapted quickly into what was rarely a purely defensive role, often teaming up with Frenchman Jeremy Mathieu to form an interchangeable duo down Los Che’s left.
This tactical flexibility and maturity attracted Del Bosque, and Alba fitted naturally into the senior Spanish squad. A cheerful character, he knew Juan Mata and David Silva from Valencia, and fitted easily into the national dressing room. On the pitch, he quickly formed a close relationship with Andres Iniesta.
“From the first day I have liked it here,” Alba said of playing for Spain. “We do not spend all day talking about how we must play. It is natural. It has not been too hard for me to get it.”
Speaking before the tournament Spain and Barcelona defender Gerard Piqué said he had been surprised at his new team-mate’s quality.
“He’s a great player,” said Piqué. “He has surprised me, because I had seen him play in La Liga and played against him, but here at training he is flying. He’s like a bullet, very small, but very skilful.”
After the Ireland game especially, opposition coaches noted the threat posed by Spain’s left side. Croatian coach Slaven Bilic played two right-backs and France boss Laurent Blanc tried something similar on Sunday. This went wrong early, with Alba motoring away from a prone Mathieu Debuchy to provide a pinpoint cross for Xabi Alonso to head Spain in front.
It now looks certain Alba, Iniesta and Piqué will be linking up at Barcelona next season, with a transfer reportedly close to agreement between the clubs. Barca will get a bargain too. While possible alternatives like Spurs’ Gareth Bale could cost €50m, Alba will move for around €12m as he has just one year left on his contract.
Before that, however, Alba has tonight’s Euro 2012 semi-final against Portugal, and the threat posed by their superstar wingers Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani. He’ll likely be unfazed, as nothing has stood in his way so far.
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