Cautious champions

Possibly the biggest poser facing Spain as they set about defending their European Championship crown in Poland and Ukraine next week is whether Vicente del Bosque’s men can lift themselves for a tilt at three tournament triumphs in a row.

Despite their pre-competition favourites tag, the reality of Spain winning the tournament could be much more difficult than many people imagine, given the fact Barcelona, with nine players in the squad, showed signs last season that their own similar domination at European club football might have run its course.

However, the Spaniards can still boast an abundance of world-class talent and will point out that players such as Javi Martinez, Fernando Llorente, Jordi Alba, Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata did not have a significant role to play when they added the 2010 World Cup to the Euro 2008 trophy won in Vienna – a frightening proposition for any country with designs of knocking La Roja off their seemingly invincible perch.

Having strolled through the qualifiers with a 100 per cent record and a 26-6 goal ratio, the double champions would appear to be in fine form heading into Euro 2012, yet recent performances have indicated that maybe there are signs the fluidity of Spain’s play is not what it was. Three wins in a week against Serbia (2-0), South Korea (4-1) and China (1-0) has been decent preparation, whilst the first two without players from Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao who were rested after the Copa del Rey final. However, it was not until late in the third game in Seville on Sunday that victory was secured, with the team struggling otherwise to overcome some stubborn defending.

A flexible 4-2-3-1 system allows Spain to dominate possession in the middle of the park, with Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso providing a defensive screen in front of the back four to leave the likes of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta free licence to do what they do best – set up countless chances for the strikers. Even so, Del Bosque’s understandable reliance on his Barca players may not hold the same fear for opponents it once did, as Xavi acknowledges.

There are not many secrets in world football any longer,” he says. “Everyone is better prepared than ever and fitness levels are very similar. We also know teams now want to beat Spain more than any other country, because they want to beat the champions, so they raise their game accordingly. But we don’t want the trophy to be going home with anybody else.”

Xavi is without doubt the key man in the Spanish team, the person that keeps the midfield ticking over whilst dictating play, retaining possession of the ball and probing for openings in the opposition defence. Yet, Chelsea’s backs-to-the-wall performance in knocking his Barcelona side out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage could have given some national team Coaches food for thought.

Granted, Barca’s finishing on the night was poor, but if Group C opponents Italy, Croatia and Republic of Ireland can find a way to starve the likes of Fernando Torres, Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Llorente of opportunities, then perhaps it is not mission impossible as some would like to believe.

There is also the issue of the defence, which is far from what it was four years ago when Carles Puyol, Carlos Marchena, Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila conceded just three goals en route to winning the tournament, all of them in the group stages. With Ramos the only surviving member of that quartet – Puyol ruled out with injury and the others long since jettisoned – it has been a case of mix and match for Del Bosque in recent times. An added worry is that in Barcelona’s Gerard Pique and Real Madrid’s Raul Albiol he has two players coming off the back of indifferent seasons by their own standards. Athletic Bilbao’s Javi Martinez has also been selected in spite of him being predominantly a central midfielder, alongside Juanfran (Atletico Madrid) and Jordi Alba (Valencia), players of limited international experience.

These are the negatives, something any country with aspirations of dethroning Spain will certainly focus on, but in spite of that they are far outweighed by the positives when the creativity of Xavi, Iniesta, Juan Mata, David Silva, Cazorla and Cesc Fabregas is taken into account.

To be the first team as duel world and European champions in history to win a third major tournament in row should be motivation enough for Del Bosque’s men. Whether or not it is, though, is the question.