Spain forward Joselu celebrates scoring his team’s winning goal against Italy in the Nations League semis (JOHN THYS)
When Spain coach Luis de la Fuente took command in December, few expected the star performer in his opening raft of games would be Espanyol striker Joselu.
The coach, who has worked in youth football within the Spanish federation and was a relative unknown when he replaced Luis Enrique at the helm of La Roja, was expected to get the best out of Spain’s talented youngsters.
However it is 33-year-old Joselu who has been the pivotal figure thus far, with three goals in three matches, including a late winner against Italy on Thursday to send Spain into the Nations League final.
All three of Joselu’s strikes have come as a substitute, with a brace against Norway on his debut in de la Fuente’s first match in March earning him a start against Scotland in the second in Euro 2024 qualifying.
That was a dismal night for Spain, with Joselu and co frustrated as Scott McTominay struck twice to inject early doubts into the new project, although he hit the woodwork with his country’s best effort.
Joselu’s late goal at FC Twente’s De Grolsch Veste stadium in Enschede has provided new impetus and staved off the wolves already scratching at the door.
While international teams sometimes call up players after they move to big clubs, with Joselu the reverse is true — Real Madrid are poised to seal a deal to bring in their former youth player next week after his eye-catching performances for Spain.
That Joselu is De la Fuente’s man, rather than a player selected by Enrique is a further shot in the arm for the 61-year-old coach.
The target man, who has played for English sides Stoke City and Newcastle United in the past, is atypical of the forwards chosen by Enrique.
The former Barcelona coach looked for movement and touch, players who would fit the system, with Alvaro Morata as far a concession to muscle and aerial menace as he would go.
De la Fuente started with the Atletico Madrid forward up front against Italy but turned to Joselu for Plan B — something which the more dogmatic Enrique would not countenance.
It took him only four minutes to make his mark against Italy.
Joselu went left when the Azzurri defence went right, staying onside by a minor miracle and converting from close range.
“It’s a question of faith,” explained the forward.
And De la Fuente is planning on keeping the faith in him, despite his age.
“He’s been very good for his club and with us he’s playing exceptionally,” said the coach.
“The plan is to keep counting on him because he’s earning it.”
– Journeyman –
Joselu’s poached effort put Spain within reach of their first trophy in over a decade.
After Spain won Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and successfully defended their Euro crown in 2012 in a glorious stretch, it seemed they would continue to dominate the international game, but that did not transpire.
Now with a hybrid of the passing football with which they succeeded and a more direct game, De la Fuente is hopeful of starting his new era with silverware.
Joselu is looking for his first honours too — with the exception of the 2010-11 La Liga trophy he won with Madrid, making his one and only league appearance for the club that season.
The forward has played for 10 clubs in Spain, Germany and England, but has blossomed late in his career.
“Age is just a number,” Joselu noted Friday.
He hit a personal best of 17 goals across all competitions for Espanyol this season, despite his team’s relegation from La Liga, in which he was the third top scorer with 16.
With Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard, Marco Asensio and Mariano Diaz departing, there is room for him at the Santiago Bernabeu and a loan from Espanyol could be sealed as soon as Monday, Spanish reports suggest.
By then he may have lifted his first trophy — at least the first he can feel like he has earned.
“Regarding the rumours, I want to focus myself here, yesterday was a beautiful day,” Joselu said.
“My eldest son wanted to run onto the pitch — these are unique moments.”