Six Spanish players are one card away from a suspension going in to the Friday evening clash between Spain and Israel in Gijón. Sergio Ramos, Piqué, Busquets, Thiago, Vitolo, and Diego Costa will miss the match against Macedonia, if they have the misfortune to enter referee Michael Oliver's book at El Molinón.
One eye on the beach, the other on Italy?
The six Spanish players on the brink of suspension have a two-pronged incentive to receive a card against Israel, a match that takes place in front of a political backdrop.
Firstly, a suspension would see the players miss the upcoming match against Macedonia. This clash will take place in the Balkans on 11th June; one week after the Champions League final, two weeks after the Copa del Rey final, and three weeks after the last round of La Liga fixtures. Subsequently, a card in Gijón would allow those six players to saunter to the beach immediately after the conclusion of the club season, rather than having to sat alert for a trip to Skopje that is, frankly, unlikely to entice.
Secondly, Spain's next game after the one in Macedonia, is a more challenging match against Italy. The two Mediterranean nations are vying for top spot in Group G. It would make sense for those players to be suspended for the trip to Macedonia, thus ensuring a 'clean slate' going in to the Italy match. The worst case for Julen Lopetegui would be for key players to receive a suspension-triggering card in Skopje, which would rule them out for the clash against Italy.
If the players concerned were motivated buy the first incentive, one could accuse them of a lack of professionalism. Yet, on a sporting level, it is hard to argue that the second incentive is not prudent.
Conundrum for Lopetegui
The situation poses an interesting question to Julen Lopetegui. He has three options. He can instruct those players to collect a booking, he can instruct them not to collect a booking, or he can allow them to make their own decisions.
The divisive deliberate booking
The decision to deliberately enter the referee's book is a divisive one. It undermines that hazy notion of sporting behaviour, as well as the disciplinary process in football. Yet often, it is unequivocally beneficial for a player and his team.
Luis Suárez was unapologetic for deliberately receiving a yellow card against Sevilla in November. The Uruguayan, who opted for dissent as his offence of choice, openly stated that "the yellow card was actually a good thing".
"I start with a clean slate ahead of matches away against Real Sociedad and Real Madrid", he reasoned.
On the other end of the spectrum, David Beckham apologised for picking up a pre-meditated yellow in a match against Wales in 2004. Beckham deliberately picked up a yellow, already in the knowledge that a rib injury he had picked up earlier in the match would rule him out of the next match, an away fixture in Azerbaijan.