Though UEFA European Under-21 Championship holders Spain appear in rude health and en route to the 2015 finals, coach Julen Lopetegui is taking nothing for granted.
A former goalkeeper for Real Madrid CF, CD Logroñés, FC Barcelona and Rayo Vallecano de Madrid, Julen Lopetegui is now in charge of Spain Under-21s. Having led La Rojita to UEFA European U21 Championship glory in Israel last summer, the tactician spoke to UEFA.com about his goals with a side that so far boast a perfect record on the road to the Czech Republic in 2015.
UEFA.com: How would you assess the current qualifying campaign for the 2015 UEFA European U21 Championship?
Julen Lopetegui: Until now, it couldn't be better. We've racked up 18 points and are very happy. That said, there is still some work left to do.
UEFA.com: You achieved U21 success as second in command to Luis Milla in Denmark in 2011 and again as the head coach in Israel last time out. Is gold at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro your next target?
Lopetegui: All we are thinking about now is gaining that play-off spot for 2015 and in turn qualifying for the finals in the Czech Republic. In football, you can't afford to think too far ahead. For that reason, we are looking towards that play-off game, which, don't forget, normally represents a really difficult tie and one that could leave you out of things if you have just one off day.
UEFA.com: Have things changed a lot within the setup following the new generation that has come through? For example, the likes of Isco and Thiago Alcántara have made way for players like Gerard Deulofeu and Jesé Rodríguez.
Lopetegui: Our overall style is very similar [to what we have played in the past], but it's true that the characteristics of certain players make you face particular situations in different ways. We have changed a lot of players and have a very young side. We are looking for this team to be competitive and to mature as they prepare for the important games. Our spirit remains exactly the same, however.
UEFA.com: How do you view a player like captain Iker Muniain, who is facing the possibility of a third U21 finals?
Lopetegui: I see him with the same, or even more determination and enthusiasm as when he started. This time around he has the responsibility of wearing the captain's armband and he is taking that responsibility in his stride. Although it seems like he's been around for ages, he's still just a kid who is racing through the stages of his young career. We are very happy with his attitude and commitment.
UEFA.com: How has this generation improved compared with the recent championship-winning side, and in what way might they seem a little weaker?
Lopetegui: No two teams are the same. Sides will always differ when there are different sets of players. The generations that have come before were fantastic, as is the current one. They have the quality to compete well. Another thing is to win. You can be good, but to win you have to know when to produce the goods in specific moments and that is now the goal for this generation.
UEFA.com: The current U21 goalkeepers ply their trade in the second and third divisions in Spain yet have the immense responsibility of following in the footsteps of David de Gea. How do you see that process going?
Lopetegui: This time around, we are counting on Kepa Arrizabalaga, Fernando Pacheco and Dani Sotres and we are happy with all of them. David is one of those keepers who only come around once in a while but those we have now have their own abilities and mental strength.
UEFA.com: Álvaro Morata was the big surprise of the 2013 finals and he has made a spectacular start to the 2015 qualification process. Could we be looking at one of the best ever players at this level?
Lopetegui: We coaches don't like to get too personal when focusing on players. We are very happy with Álvaro. Apart from his on-field performances, we are thrilled with his general commitment. These guys, when they don't get much playing time at their clubs, appreciate playing every game even more. I have absolutely no doubt that he will continue with his excellent progress.
UEFA.com: Do you think it's a good thing that U21 players such as Jordi Amat, José Campaña and Marc Muniesa enter the setup from clubs outside Spain?
Lopetegui: I see it as a very positive thing. Nowadays, borders don't really exist in football. The experience they are gaining abroad, however, will benefit them on a personal and professional level. Obviously they need to be playing, though. Muniesa is starting to do so while Amat is playing after recently being injured. Gerard Deulofeu is also gaining more and more playing time.
UEFA.com: What are your hopes for 2014?
Lopetegui: Firstly, I would wish everyone good health, work and happiness. On a professional level, I want to continue to work with the same passion and ask that the guys continue to show the same commitment and eagerness while playing with the U21s. After that, I'd like us to continue along the path that we are currently on.