Nickname: La Furia Roja
Rankings: FIFA (1), Elo (1), SPI (3)
Euro History: Champions (1964, 2008), Finals (1984), Quarterfinals (1996, 2000), Qualified (1980, 1988, 2004)
Last Five Tournaments: W – W – R16 – GS – QF
Spain’s Euro 2008 title sparked a soccer renaissance. Known principally for underachievement, La Roja have now won back to back tournaments and are the bookies’ favorites to win an unprecedented third. Their success has fueled corresponding success for their club sides, Barcelona and Real Madrid. This epoch cultivation, however, might lead to their downfall.
Success is mentally draining. It becomes its own animal. It breeds increasing pressure to maintain itself. In soccer it also becomes physically demanding. The more matches you win in tournaments, the more matches you play. Success can also make it harder to adapt. The last European team to try for a third was France in 2002. They imploded in the group stage, departing Japan without scoring a goal.
Spain felt the lug nuts loosen when exhausted Barcelona and Real Madrid teams could not reach the dream European final. The cursory refractory period may not give them enough time to regroup.
Qualifying: Spain qualified perfectly from Group I, finishing 8-0-0 with a +20 goal difference and an 11-point lead over second place Czech Republic. They have won their last three friendlies by an 11-1 margin, though they did lose 1-0 to England in November and 2-1 to Italy last August.
Coach: Vicente del Bosque, 61, returns to lead Spain for his second tournament. He steered them to success in World Cup 2010. He also had a prolific stretch at Real Madrid, winning two league titles and two Champions Leagues from 1999 to 2003. Del Bosque was granted a peerage by King Juan Carlos I of Spain. He’s officially the 1st Marquis of Del Bosque. That probably was much cooler in the 1500s.
Squad: Spain opted for continuity. Nineteen of the 23-man South Africa squad return. Two were changes necessitated by injury. The only voluntary substitutions were phasing out aging defenders Joan Capdevilla and Carlos Marchena.
Spain’s midfield is absurd. The talent and depth is unconscionable. Any combination of their 10 midfielders would give them the best unit in the tournament. Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso and Andres Iniesta are almost definite starters. They’ll be joined, likely by David Silva or Juan Mata. Cesc Fabregas, Javi Martinez, Santi Cazorla and Jesus Navas – all world class talents – will struggle to see the field. Spain’s other abundance is at goalkeeper. Iker Casillas is the world’s best. Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina are on a shortlist behind him.
Their back four is decent. Gerard Pique should pair with Sergio Ramos in central defense with Arbeloa and Valencia’s Jordi Alaba as fullbacks. Atletic Bilbao’s Fernando Llorente is a capable striker, who should earn the nod ahead of Fernando Torres.
Injuries: The Spain squad is robust, but whether they win will depend on how they cope with players who are absent. Striker David Villa could not get fit in time. You might remember him. He was top scorer at Euro 2008 and joint top-scorer at World Cup 2010 (five of Spain’s eight goals). He also scored 7 goals during Spain’s qualifying run. He’s direct and provides a bite and finishing quality Spain will miss.
Defender Carles Puyol will miss the tournament as well. Yes, he’s the Barcleona captain and leader etc. More improtantly, he’s an experienced and versatile defender. He has a great partnership with his club partner Pique. He also provides Spain with a physicality they get from few other fonts. Tiki-taka is great. Sometimes you need the guy who comes flying in to head a corner. Those added dimensions made Spain champions.
Tactics: Del Bosque tinkers in friendlies (four different formations in Spain’s last four matches), but in competitive matches he’s consistent. Spain switched from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 during qualifying. We should see that continue. Llorente should lead the line up front with Iniesta and either Mata or Silva in auxiliary roles. Xavi and Xabi Alonso will play behind them, with Busquets dropping into a slightly deeper role. Same personnel. Same skill and short-passing, possession game. Slightly different positioning.
Fatigue: Spanish players have played a lot of games the past four years. Spain played the max in 2008 and 2010, plus the trip to the 2009 Confederations Cup. The Barcelona players have reached at least the Champions League semifinals each year. Real Madrid has done so the last two seasons. Athletic Bilbao added an extra 15 matches with its Europa League Final run (while not rotating and playing a demanding pressing game). Xavi, 32, has played 253 matches since the start of Euro 2008. Felicitously for them, the Germans will face a similar problem.
Prognosis: Spain are favorites. It would take an upset to reach them from the final. One wonders, though, whether they have that little bit extra they had the past two times.
Fun Fact: Spain produces 75 percent of the world’s saffron, and anything cooked with it will taste like paella.
[Photos via Presswire]