Spain are the world and European champions. They qualified for this summer’s competition with an eight-wins-from-eight record. They hold the world record for winning 14 competitive games in a row. And they followed up their qualifying campaign with a stunning 5-0 victory in a friendly against Venezuela that showcased them at their very best. Success at Euro 2008 and in South Africa two years later did not just wipe out the past, it provided a road map for the future.
There are very few teams so clear in their identity, so assured when it comes to how they are going to play.
The nucleus of those teams is still together and, of their key players, only Marcos Senna is no longer around – and Spain won the World Cup without him. This may be the last chance for Carles Puyol and Xavi, possibly even David Villa too, but they will be there. Add to that the fact they are European Under-21 champions and there is another generation of wonderful players coming through – Jordi Alba, Thiago Alcantara and Iker Muniain did not go to South Africa but may well travel to Poland – and it is easy to see why Spain are deemed favourites.
In fact, if you want to see why they are favourites, just watch them. Better still, watch them do an astonishing keep-ball drill in training as the ball zips round the circle.
Spain are unique. The touch and technique is unrivalled as is the dominance of possession. When they attack, they do not hammer away at defences. Instead, they pick off the opposition, removing their armour piece by piece, playing with patience and precision. In tight spaces, they are often breathtakingly brilliant.
At the World Cup they struggled for goals, but that was a product of the ultra-defensive approach of their opponents and in the end they found a way through. Vicente Del Bosque has worked on adding variety. He had already employed players who slightly broke the mould – the direct-running Jesus Navas and the superb aerial ability of Fernando Llorente, for example. Now, Muniain has been given a chance and David Silva has tried a new role up front, while Alba offers more dynamism on the left.
Besides, their tiki-taka style wasn’t just about creating chances. They limited chances for the opposition by wearing them out. It was defensive as well as offensive. “When we did eventually win the ball we were so exhausted from chasing it we couldn’t do anything with
it,” admitted Miroslav Klose after the World Cup semi-final against Germany. Spain had produced 160 passes more; Germany ran
1.2 miles more.
Glimpse of mortality
Of course there are doubts. A glimpse of mortality has been provided by friendly results, with Portugal and Argentina both putting four past them. It was perhaps natural the focus and intensity would not be the same – and there is little doubt that the players were far from happy about the organisation of the trip to South America – but there is a certain degree of concern and Spain are not without problems.
When Athletic Bilbao face Barcelona in the Spanish Cup Final on May 25, a game which could include as many as 13 players from the seleccion, most other nations will already be in their pre-tournament training camps. As usual, Spain’s federation has broken the UEFA deadline. The impact could be detrimental, as could the impact of an extremely successful season.
Del Bosque has insisted he is not concerned about the deterioration of relationships between players from Barcelona and Real Madrid, and that they are intelligent and mature enough to understand the difference between club and country.
Then there is the injury to Villa, their most important striker. He will make it to Poland, his broken leg healed, but in what shape?
At least these are largely issues Spain have confronted and overcome before. Poor organisation at federation level is not new and Andres Iniesta only just made it to South Africa. Some thought he was not ready. A month later, his goal gave Spain the World Cup.
EURO 2012 FIXTURES
10.06.12 Italy (Gdansk, Pol)
14.06.12 Republic of Ireland (Gdansk, Pol)
18.06.12 Croatia (Gdansk, Pol)
EURO 2012 SQUAD
1 Iker Casillas (31) 20.05.81 Real Madrid
23 Pepe Reina (29) 31.08.82 Liverpool (Eng)
12 Victor Valdes (30) 14.01.82 Barcelona
18 Jordi Alba (23) 21.03.89 Valencia
2 Raul Albiol (26) 04.09.85 Real Madrid
17 Alvaro Arbeloa (29) 17.01.83 Real Madrid
5 Juanfran (27) 09.01.85 Atletico Madrid
3 Gerard Pique (25) 02.02.87 Barcelona
15 Sergio Ramos (26) 30.03.86 Real Madrid
14 Xabi Alonso (30) 25.11.981 Real Madrid
16 Sergio Busquets (24) 16.07.87 Barcelona
20 Santi Cazorla (27) 13.12.84 Malaga
10 Cesc Fabregas (25) 04.05.987 Barcelona
6 Andres Iniesta (28) 11.05.84 Barcelona
4 Javi Martinez (23) 02.09.88 Athletic Bilbao
13 Juan Mata (24) 28.04.88 Chelsea (Eng)
22 Jesus Navas (26) 21.11.85 Sevilla
21 David Silva (26) 08.01.86 Manchester City (Eng)
8 Xavi (32) 25.01.80 Barcelona
19 Fernando Llorente (27) 26.02.85 Athletic Bilbao
11 Alvaro Negredo (26) 20.08.85 Sevilla
7 Pedro (24) 28.07.87 Barcelona
9 Fernando Torres (28) 20.03.84 Chelsea (Eng)
Vicente Del Bosque (61) 23.12.50
… defender Carles Puyol misses out after undergoing knee surgery … as did David Villa, who fractured his left tibia during the Club World Cup in December … Athletic Bilbao’s Andoni Iraola injured himself in the Spanish Cup Final three days before the final squad was announced …
EURO 2012 QUALIFYING CAMPAIGN
03.09.10 Liechtenstein (a) 4-0
08.10.10 Lithuania (h) 3-1
12.10.10 Scotland (a) 3-2
25.03.11 Czech Republic (h) 2-1
29.03.11 Lithuania (a) 3-1
06.09.11 Liechtenstein (h) 6-0
07.10.11 Czech Republic (a) 2-0
11.10.11 Scotland (h) 3-1
P W D L F A Pts
Spain 8 8 0 0 26 6 24
Czech Rep 8 4 1 3 12 8 13
Scotland 8 3 2 3 9 10 11
Lithuania 8 1 2 5 4 13 5
L’chtenstein 8 1 1 6 3 17 4
By Sid Lowe