Spain begins the defense of its European Championship title on June 10 in the Arena Gdansk as it bids to become the first nation in history to win three successive major international tournaments. If Iker Casillas lifts the trophy on July 1, it will be the culmination of what Luis Aragonés started in 2006 when he tore up the traditional Spanish blueprint. The seasoned and somewhat eccentric coach cast Raúl into international exile after the second match in qualifying for the 2008 European Championships against Northern Ireland, which Spain lost 3-2, and moved toward a slick passing style far removed from the kitchen-sink stylings of yore that earned Spain its nickname, the Red Fury. In the next match, a 0-2 loss to Sweden, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas and David Villa all started as the era of the bajitos (little ones) was ushered in. David Silva made his debut later the same year as the Spanish side that has earned plaudits the world over began to take shape.
Del Bosque said when taking charge in 2008 after Aragonés had led La Roja to glory in Vienna that he would not need to make many changes to the national set-up, but merely to tinker a little with the winning formula bequeathed to him.
Del Bosque was made a marquis after overseeing Spain’s successful World Cup campaign in 2010, but it is Xavi Hernández who will be lauded in history as the player who translated his country’s grand design into international hegemony. The Barcelona midfielder was anointed by Aragonés to orchestrate Spain’s passing game and control the rhythm of matches, while frustrating the opposition and probing for weaknesses. The World Player of the Year in 2010 had a 90-percent pass completion rate in South Africa and was the player of the tournament at Euro 2008. His importance to the team cannot be underestimated. Having played through most of the past two seasons with niggling calf and Achilles problems, Del Bosque will hope the heartbeat of his side can withstand the pressures of tournament football.
Shorn of inspirational defender Carles Puyol and record scorer David Villa, Del Bosque has had to blend youth with experience in his final 23-man squad, only 12 of whom are veterans of Austria and Switzerland.
» Defenders: Jordi Alba, Albiol, Arbeloa, Juanfran, Javi Martínez, Piqué, Ramos.
Three midfielders converted to defensive roles, a right back who has played the second half of the season in the center of defense, another who has barely played at all and one who has been in and out of his club side with question marks over his motivation and off-field frolics: all hardly ideal for Del Bosque and the recent loss of Puyol through injury should not be underestimated. Of the selected defenders Sergio Ramos is the man most suited to stepping into the Barça captain’s boots and he will be expected to organize the back four. The former Sevilla defender has excelled in a central defensive role for Real Madrid this season and chipped in with a couple of crucial goals.
Alba and Juanfran are Spain rookies and reconstituted midfielders but the former is first, second and third choice on the left of defense, largely by dint of being the sole left-footer available in the absence of Nacho Monreal. Álvaro Arbeloa will occupy the right side while Gerard Piqué, despite a topsy-turvy season blighted by injury and a couple of spats with Pep Guardiola, will line up alongside Ramos, if for no other reason than to keep Raúl Albiol firmly on the bench, a position he has made very much his own at the Bernabéu with a paltry 10 league appearances for Real this season.
Athletic Bilbao’s Martínez is a defensive midfielder who was asked to slot into the center of The Lions’ defense by coach Marcelo Bielsa and represents the type of player so beloved of tournament managers — one that can perform multiple roles.
The absence of Carles Puyol thrusts Sergio Ramos into a leadership role
» Goalkeepers: Casillas, Reina, Valdés.
A factor that is easy to overlook, as pundits and fans purr over Spain’s celebrated midfield, is its wealth of excellent goalkeepers. In most other national sides Reina and Valdés would be somewhere around the 100-caps mark but it is the Real Madrid captain’s well-earned right to be considered Spain’s undisputed number one.
Never injured, Casillas is rarely dropped, even for friendly matches. The man from Móstoles already has 129 appearances under his belt, more than any other player in Spain’s history, and has kept a clean sheet in 72 of those matches. Unfortunately for Reina and Valdés, he has a few years left in him yet.
» Midfielders: Xabi Alonso, Busquets, Cazorla, Fàbregas, Xavi, Iniesta, Mata, Silva.
Athletic's Javi Martínez can fill a variety of positions across the back
Considering the relative inexperience of Spain’s back line, La Roja’s trick of not letting the opposition have the ball will be even more crucial to success than ever. In this area of the field Spain has no peer. The tried and tested starting line-up of Xavi, to control the tempo, Alonso, to spread the ball around from deep and Busquets, to rough up the opposition a tad, will not be tinkered with.
Del Bosque has taken just five forwards to Poland and Ukraine and in the absence of record scorer David Villa may opt for a 4-3-3 formation instead of the 4-2-3-1 often employed when the Barcelona man is available. That would allow two or more of the bajitos to form up the forward line, with David Silva the natural choice to play as a false 9 or in support of a single out-and-out striker after filling that role successfully during the domestic season.
Andrés Iniesta and Silva combined for the only goal against China in Sunday’s final warm-up match and the Barcelona and Manchester City players will probably be first choice to fill the two wide forward positions. Fàbregas may find himself warming the bench more than he would like, as will Santi Cazorla who, like his goalkeeping colleagues, suffers from being a fantastic midfielder in a squad of exceptional midfielders.
» Forwards: Llorente, Navas, Negredo, Pedro, Torres.
Fàbregas may find himself warming the bench more than he would like
Shorn of Villa, who has 51 goals in 82 games for his country, Del Bosque has been forced to experiment with the front line. But all is not lost in the absence of the Asturian: Torres has played at three major international tournaments and will not be fazed by the occasion. His experience alone makes him invaluable and his return to the national fold was marked by a goal after 11 minutes of play last week against South Korea.
Álvaro Negredo, however, also scored in the that game after coming on as a second-half substitute, and the Sevilla striker shone against China, linking well with Silva in the first half and coming close to opening Spain’s account on a couple of occasions. There was some consternation in Spain when it was announced that Del Bosque was taking Negredo instead of Valencia’s Roberto Soldado, who scored more goals than the “Beast of Vallecas” during the season and bagged a hat-trick for Spain against Venezuela in February.
Del Bosque started both strikers against Serbia last month in a 4-4-2 formation. If it was a dress rehearsal, Negredo delivered his lines with more aplomb, rattling the Serbian backline on several occasions. The Spain coach clearly believes that Negredo fits the system he has up his sleeve better than Soldado would, and it will be little surprise if it is the Sevilla man who lines up against the Azzurri on June 10.
Llorente will be used as he was in South Africa, as an impact substitute to execute plan B when the tiki-taka is dashed on defensive rocks. When Spain was finding Portugal a tough nut to crack in Cape Town, Del Bosque threw the burly Bilbao man into the fray and it is no exaggeration to say he turned the game, immediately testing Eduardo between the Portuguese sticks and lending Spain a new attacking dynamic. Five minutes after Llorente’s introduction, Villa scored the only game of the game. The Athletic forward trailed off toward the end of a grueling club season and will benefit from a couple of weeks’ rest.
Llorente will be used as he was in South Africa, as an impact substitute
When Spain lines up against Ireland on June 14, Llorente will likely play a part as an Emerald wall will be thrown up around Shay Given’s goal. Italy, too, may choose to lean on its catenaccio proclivity to thwart Spain, which will turn to the big man if a battering ram is required.
Pedro, who has had an underwhelming season for Barcelona, offers an incisive attacking threat on either flank and is quite capable of landing the ball on Llorente’s head if the on-the-deck approach fails. Sevilla winger Jesús Navas, also a potential game-changer from the bench, has the speed and guile to concern any defense and provided four assists in a single match against Getafe in April. But neither player offers a considerable goal threat, although Pedro has a canny habit of finding the net in big matches.
Even if Spain is not scoring freely, it is worth remembering that it won every knock-out game in South Africa 1-0. Spain is the tournament favorite, but as Del Bosque warned: “In these relatively short championships it is possible for any country to come into form and win it, as happened with Greece in 2004.”
Spain is the favorite to win the 2012 European Championship, with Holland and Germany both heavily tipped to face the reigning champion in Kiev on July 1.
La Roja’s first match is against Italy, which won the last match between the two in August, 2011. The <CF1005>Azzurri</CF> is not the force it once was but in Parma forward Sebastian Giovinco and mercurial striker Mario Balotelli it has the potential for goals and will, of course, be pretty solid at the back. Italy cruised through qualifying unbeaten but has lost its last three friendly matches without scoring a goal. To compound its on-field concerns, the build-up to the tournament has been overshadowed by a match-fixing scandal, which led to Domenico Criscito’s exclusion.
Ireland is Spain’s second opponent and few bookmakers will be giving short odds on Giovanni Trapattoni’s team upsetting the champion. Under the Italian, Ireland has morphed into an organized, solid unit that lost just once in qualifying. However, Ireland really only boasts two world class players — Shay Given and record goalscorer Robbie Keane — and neither is in the full flush of youth. If Ireland gets out of the group, it will likely be goalkeeper Given taking all the plaudits, although Spartak Moscow winger Aiden McGeady is capable of the unexpected.
In Croatia Spain faces a team stuffed with individual talent but that failed to overcome Greece in two qualifying matches, eventually finishing runner-up to the Euro 2004 champion and beating Turkey in the playoffs. Slaven Bilic, who has been at the helm of the national team for six years, has announced that he will be stepping down immediately after the tournament, which could work as a stimulus for his players, many of whom were handed their debuts under his tutelage. Croatia’s main attacking weapons are Tottenham star Luka Modric, Borussia Dortmund’s Ivan Perisic and Eduardo, the Shakhtar Donetsk striker.