Euro 2012 Preview: Spain
The reigning European and World Champions need little introduction, but the challenge faced by this much-vaunted side is how to defend their crown and maintain the high standards they have set themselves.
Widely regarded as the best national team in the world and containing many key members of what many regard as one of the greatest club sides in footballing history, Spain have little to prove. Their task is to become one of the greatest national sides in history and win successive European championships for the first time in the competition’s history. Injuries and fatigue may count against them but the core of the squad is the same as in the previous two tournament victories; their success may well depend on how the latest additions perform and how the experienced players adapt to the changes.
How Did They Qualify?
Magnificently. The Spaniards won all eight of their qualifying games, scoring an impressive 26 goals in the process, the fourth highest total in qualifying after the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden who all played 10 games.
They sealed qualification in style by beating Lichtenstein 6-0 in Logroño, although of their group only the Czech Republic looked – on paper at least – to present a real threat to the champions (sorry Scotland fans). Their qualifying campaign was also useful in that the likes of Fernando Llorente gained valuable experience and replaced the goals previously provided by the out-of-form Fernando Torres. David Silva also finally cemented his place in the side, scoring four goals. Vicente Del Bosque has a lot of options and has used qualifying (and various friendlies) to give his squad much-needed experience ahead of the tournament.
Juan Mata, who was rather unusually part of the Spain u-21 squad who won last summer’s tournament despite previously being part of the World Cup winning squad, has found more opportunities and managed a couple of goals which should mean that he is involved more extensively in this year’s tournament.
Vicente del Bosque – one of only two men to win both the Champions League and the World Cup, del Bosque’s pedigree is unquestionable. Having presided over the most successful period in Real Madrid’s recent history in his third stint as manager between 1999 and 2003, the former Merengues midfielder was offered the national job after Euro 2004 but turned it down. The man who took the job, Luis Aragonés, was in charge for Spain’s successful Euro 2008 win where he stepped down to be replaced by del Bosque.
Since assuming control of the side, the man from Salamanca has built on that success impressively, winning his first 13 games in charge and guiding the team to World Cup glory. While the players he has at his disposal are exceptional, del Bosque has proven both at Madrid and with Spain that he excels at managing elite players and winning trophies.
Adding a European Championship to his already impressive list of trophies as both player and coach would be the icing on the cake for the 61-year-old’s career but he must find a way to successfully replace David Villa and use his impressive squad to the best of their talents in order to do so.
Fernando Llorente – 27 – Forward
A behemoth in Athletic Bilbao’s successful team this season, Llorente has the unenviable task of replacing David Villa – a man del Bosque recently called ‘irreplaceable’. Spain’s all-time leading goalscorer with 51 goals in 82 appearances, Villa’s importance to the team is obvious. He was their top marksman in qualifying, scoring seven goals, but has missed most of this season with a fractured tibia and will not be at the championships.
Accordingly, the pressure on Fernando Llorente to score goals will become immense. With Torres’ losing form, the Basque striker slotted into the qualifying squad and scored three goals, including a vital winner against Scotland. His domestic form this season, particularly in Europe, has been exceptional and Spanish fans will hope he replicates this for the national side. At 27, he is reaching his peak and his physical prowess is certainly capable of causing problems for any defence.
Noted for his aerial ability (which he demonstrated with a pair of headed goals against Lithuania in qualifying) and skilful hold-up play, Llorente’s value will perhaps be measured more in terms of creating opportunities than in his goals. Unfavourable comparisons with Emile Heskey abound but Llorente is a far better player than that. He will, however, need to build on a return of seven goals in 20 appearances if Spain are to have a chance of winning this tournament, regardless of his ability to provide for his team mates. Whether Xavi et al can adapt to his style of play – or if he can adapt to theirs – is another problem which del Bosque must address. He may well elect to play Fabregas, Mata or Silva as a false nine, in the Barcelona style, thus relegating Llorente to the bench. Or he may select the disappointing-but-on-his-way-back Torres or Alvaro Negredo (who has the best chance conversion percentage of any forward under del Bosque) to lead the line. Roberto Soldado misses out despite equalling Llorente’s 17 goal tally this season, so it would appear that El Rey León has his manager’s confidence for more than just goals.
The obvious choice is Llorente given his starring role in Bilbao’s run to the Europa League final but the man from the Basque country may necessitate a change of style which del Bosque is unwilling to risk. Whichever way he addresses the problem of Villa’s absence, Spain’s hopes will rest on how successful that solution is.
Iker Casillas – 31 – Goalkeeper
The captain has made more appearances for Spain than anyone else in the nation’s history and with good reason. Consistently one of the best keepers in the world, he ensures that the little that does break through the defenders in front of him is kept out more often than not. Just as valuable to del Bosque’s men will be his leadership qualities, cultivated over more than 12 years with Real Madrid and Spain.
Having lifted this trophy before where he kept clean sheets throughout the knock-out stages, San Iker‘s ability to deny the continent’s top talent will be crucial in the tense, often low-scoring matches typically seen at this level. Having eclipsed Edwin Van der Sar’s record of 72 international clean sheets in the pre-tournament friendly against Serbia, we can expect that record to be extended during the tournament.
David Silva – 24 – Forward
With 55 caps, Silva is a surprisingly experienced international for his age. A member of both the Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 squads, Silva has been there and done it all. One of the only criticisms levelled at him up until their World Cup triumph was his disappointing return of goals; four in qualifying and another four in friendlies since South Africa demonstrate Silva’s growing maturity on the international stage.
Expect him to surpass the one goal he scored in the 2008 tournament this summer. His captivating performances illuminate games with far more than goalscoring though – English fans will be familiar with the fantastic form he has demonstrated at Manchester City, although this tailed off a little in the second half of the season. If he can rediscover his best, few defences at the tournament will be capable of stopping him.
Xavi – 32 -Midfielder
Player of the tournament last time out, Xavi has been the heartbeat of the Spain and Barcelona teams that have captivated the world in recent years. His through ball for Torres’ tournament-winning goal in the final will live long in the memory of Spanish fans, as will his outstanding contribution in South Africa where he completed an incredible 599 of 699 passes while covering an average of 11.5km per game.
At 32, this may be his last major tournament given the strength of Spain’s midfield choices and the diminutive Catalan will be desperate to overcome his disappointing lack of trophies with Barcelona this season. Few midfielders at the tournament come close to his level of performance – or his trophy cabinet – but he will need all the experience of those 108 caps to see Spain through the difficult games in the knockout stages.
Casillas; Arbeloa, Ramos, Piqué, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Alonso; Iniesta, Llorente, Silva.
Spain have an embarrassment of riches on the bench and this XI excludes players like Fabregas, Mata, Pedro, Arbeloa, Iraola, Torres, Soldado, Raul Albiol amongst others.
Del Bosque’s dilemma is choosing which of his outstanding squad to exclude.
How Far Can They Go?
They have all the experience and pedigree to suggest another run to the final is imminent, although the fatigue shown by the Barcelona players towards the end of the season will lead many to write off their chances. After gruelling seasons with Real Madrid, Manchester City and Athletic Bilbao, other key players will also have to overcome tiredness to reach the best of their abilities. That said, if they play to the best of their abilities Spain are peerless in world football at present. Injuries to key men Puyol and Villa may prove significant – although in the 11 competitive games under del Bosque without Puyol, Spain have a 100% record, suggesting they have sufficient depth to overcome his loss.
The main challengers to them are Germany, the Netherlands and group rivals Italy – all of whom had very impressive qualifying campaigns. The opening game against the Italians could be a watermark for the Spaniards, although as the first team to lose a game and still win the World Cup, they will probably not be too disheartened if they fail to win. With a likely game against Ukraine, Sweden (or England if they surprise us) in the quarter final, a semi against the Dutch or Germans is likely to be their first truly daunting fixture. Should they reach the final, their experience may well tell – but no team has yet managed to defend their European crown.