Spain are targeting a record third successive UEFA European Championship title when they get their campaign underway in France on Monday, and one man key to their hopes is Bundesliga star Thiago Alcantara, who has blossomed into a world-class midfielder at the Allianz Arena.
Thiago arrived in Bavaria in the summer of 2013 at the behest of coach Pep Guardiola, who said of his pursuit of the then-FC Barcelona starlet: "I spoke to the club [FC Bayern München] and told them about my concept and told them why I want Thiago. He is the only player that I want. It will be him or no one."
High praise for a player just three months past his 22nd birthday. Thiago, though, was no normal 22-year-old. Handed his Barcelona debut by Guardiola at the age of 18, Thiago - the son of Brazil's former FIFA World Cup winner Mazinho - went on to win four Spanish Liga titles and one UEFA Champions League crown in four years at the Camp Nou.
"We needed Thiago against Ingolstadt," said Guardiola after Matchday 16's 2-0 win over their fellow Bavarians, which assured Bayern would go into the winter break top of the table. "Thiago approached me on Friday evening and told me that he was ready to play again, either as a starter or coming off the bench. I like his attitude. I know that it would have been better for him to have an extra week of rest […but] he brings something extra on the pitch. He always wants to have the ball."
Thiago's use of the ball once he gets it is what makes him stand out from the crowd. His corner for Alvaro Morata's headed goal in Spain's 6-1 friendly rout of South Korea in Salzburg was delivered just five minutes after entering the fray, and the pin-point cross had the kind of pace and dip on it that made it nigh-on impossible for the Juventus-owned striker to miss. The Asian nation may be 50th in the latest round of FIFA World Rankings, but any notion that Thiago cannot do it on the biggest stage was soundly dispelled when Bayern lined up against Morata's Juventus in this season's UEFA Champions League Round of 16.
Morata's incredible run and assist for Juan Cuadrado in the second leg at the Allianz in March made it 2-0 to the Italians on the night and 4-2 on aggregate. Bayern battled back to 2-2 with goals from Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller to force extra-time, before Thiago sent the Bavarians into the lead for the first time in 112 minutes of the tie, playing a smart one-two with Müller before steering a classy finish into the corner of Gianluigi Buffon's goal. Bayern won 6-4 on aggregate before ultimately falling to Club Atletico de Madrid on away goals in the semi-finals.
Spain begin the defence of their title against the Czech Republic at the Stadium de Toulouse. Thiago both creates chances and takes them, and history might well be his to make once the final at the Stade de France rolls around a little less than a month later.