Spain celebrates rise of ‘volcano’ Gavi ahead of World Cup

MADRID (AP) — Spain will enter the summer break at the top of its Nations League group, and knowing that teenager Gavi Páez has what it takes to make it to the World Cup.

The 17-year-old Gavi made the most of his chance with the national team this month, helping quiet some of the criticism that surrounded his surprise call-up last September.

Many had criticized Spain coach Luis Enrique for picking a teenager who had barely played for Barcelona’s main team at the time. Many said it was too soon to give the young midfielder a spot in the national team.

After Gavi’s four appearances this month, though, it wasn’t hard for Luis Enrique to defend his choice.

“When Gavi is on the field, he is like a volcano erupting. It’s hard not to fall in love with him,” Luis Enrique said after Spain’s 2-0 win over the Czech Republic on Sunday, a result that left “La Roja” at the top of its group in the Nations League.

“Everybody wants to see him play,” the coach said. “It’s impossible there was a single fan at the La Rosaleda (stadium) who didn’t enjoy him. He can play between lines like no one else, he is always in a good position, he is fearless, can score, pass, defend …”

Gavi came off the bench in the 59th minute against the Czechs and helped set up the team’s second goal in Málaga on Sunday. He had been in the starting lineup in the first three matches, playing well in all of them.

The young playmaker made his debut with the senior squad in the semifinals of last season’s Nations League, when Spain defeated Italy in October. Gavi also started in the final against France, when Spain lost.

He has been a regular starter for Luis Enrique since then, playing in World Cup qualifiers and friendly matches.

The coach’s praise on Sunday came after he had said Gavi had a lot to improve “on and off the field.”

Luis Enrique did not elaborate but said Gavi was smart and knew exactly what he was talking about. On Sunday, the coach said the message “was valid for all players.”

“All players can improve on and off the field,” he said. “Regardless of being in this group or not.”

Gavi is in the midst of contract negotiations with Barcelona, with club president Joan Laporta saying recently that they are close to reaching an agreement.

Gavi is one of many youngsters who have been gaining space with the national team under Luis Enrique, along with 19-year-olds Ansu Fati and Pedri González.

Luis Enrique on Sunday also praised Marco Asensio, who also performed well in the Nations League games this month despite not getting a lot of minutes with Real Madrid during the season.

“There is not a lot of doubt about Marco,” Luis Enrique said. “We like him and he knows it. Every time he played he helped both offensively and defensively. The handicap is that there are other players who are not here now but who also can help like him in this position.”

Spain opened Group 2 of the top-tier League A with draws against Portugal and at the Czech Republic, then won at Switzerland before beating the Czechs at home on Sunday.

With two group matches left to play in September before the World Cup, Spain has eight points, one more than 2019 Nations League champion Portugal, which lost at Switzerland 1-0 on Sunday.

Only the group winners advance to the Final Four.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

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