Euro 2012 Team Preview: Spain


If they were a pop star they'd be...

The Beatles (Let it Be era).

Not quite as masterly as they once were, but still better than nearly everything else around. The 'fab four' were the greatest band of all time, setting records in the past and present, often used as reference points and imitated the most; whether it was lyrics, tunes or song titles. They changed the face of music, inspiring future generations. Chief songwriters Paul McCartney and John Lennon would be forever connected; just as play-making maestro's Xavi and Iniesta will be endlessly associated.

Manager's pedigree

There are few managers in the world that can rank alongside Vicente del Bosque. Whilst some have excelled in club management or internationally, the 61-year-old has done both, and only Marcello Lippi can match his status as a Champions League and World Cup winning coach. Inevitably he has his doubters, those who assume he is just carrying on the mantle from Luis Aragonés; that a team of supreme talent picks itself. These people are affectionately referred to by myself as clowns. A number of players might have a European Championship award in their back pocket, but del Bosque will want to acquire one of his own.

Selection dilemmas

The major bone of contention for La Roja is in the striking position. Spain's all time top scorer and leading marksmen in the last European Championships, David Villa, has been out since December and will be sorely missed. The wealth of attacking options within the squad means Del Bosque could select dependent of the opposition, but as he will most likely want a settled side this seems improbable. Does he opt for the power and strength of Fernando Llorente or the speed and movement of Fernando Torres?  Some games have seen David Silva deployed as a 'false nine', most notably against Scotland, where the Manchester City man scored a hat-trick. In wide areas a similar problem exists; does he choose the guile of Juan Mata or the width of Jesús Navas? The vision of Andrés Iniesta or the directness of Pedro? Few countries can afford such luxuries; take the starting eleven out of this 23 man squad and the side would still be one of the favourites.

Expectation/mood back home

Gone are the days of serial under achievers, the last four years has generated an assumption that they will be successful. The fans expect their side to be there or thereabouts and rightfully so. There's nothing like a winning football team to unite a country divided by regional cultures and differences. There are those who are concerned over injuries to key players Carles Puyol and David Villa, whilst others believe there overall class within their nation will be enough to see them through. It's becoming a habit that no one wants to break.

Main man

Xavier Hernández i Creus, known simply to the world as Xavi, still pulls the strings for La Selección. He binds the side together: his influence takes a team of naturally skillful superstars and makes them a whole. Once again he will reside in the tournament's list of top pass makers, in terms of attempts and accuracy. Statistical analysis in football was invented for this Catalan creator of magic. His experience and composure are vital as they look to defend their crown.

Most likely to be top scorer

With the absence of injury victim Villa, goals from one particular source could be difficult to find. Spain have the lowest goal scoring average amongst the favourites, and the likely midfield trident of Spain has just 23 goals in almost 250 games, putting greater emphasis on the front three attacking players. Enter £50 million man Fernando Torres; having endured a nightmare 12 months, the Chelsea man is looking confident, fit and eager to make amends for lost time. Whilst having not always looked the perfect fit stylistically and tactically for the national side, his strengths can be greater utilised here. Making the squad seemed a struggle just six weeks ago, but his pace and ability to stretch the play will open up space for teammates whilst offering a continued goal threat. Torres to be top scorer is at 4.00.

Most likely to get sent off

Few players within the squad are likely to let their colleagues down on the big occasion and lose their cool. It's possible that Sergio Ramos or Gerard Piqué could get caught high up the pitch and deny a goal scoring opportunity, but over the course of a tournament Sergio Busquets ranks as the favourite. He has the ability to cause an opposition red or pick up one himself. The Barcelona holding midfielder has an array of misdemeanors in his back pocket - diving, inappropriate language, feigning of injury and late challenges are just some of his specialities.

Three unknowns to keep an eye out for

The rise of Atlético Madrid full-back Juanfran has been impressive in the last six months. Rarely used by former coach Gregorio Manzano, he was converted from a winger by current manager Diego Simeone. Whilst his playing time here will be either limited or non-existent barring injury, you can expect him to grasp any given time on the pitch with both hands. He's not short on confidence and will perform exuberantly if given the opportunity.

Villarreal's descent from Champions league qualifiers to a relegated side over the course of this season has many contributing factors, but perhaps none more so than the sale of Santi Cazorla. While able to play out wide, he would be most likely used as a mobile deep-lying playmaker, the role he has occupied for his Andalusian club.

Former Real Madrid striker Álvaro Negredo is probably the least known outside Spain of the out-and-out strikers within the squad. At 26, it will be his first major tournament, having been overlooked for South Africa. With six goals in nine international appearances to date, he's a handful for any defender on the pitch, whilst friendly and polite off it.

Prediction

Although they stumbled in their World Cup opener against Switzerland two years ago, it's hard to look past Spain winning their group. Many former champions have failed to even get out of the group stages in the past as generations have moved on, but don't expect that here. Their biggest test will come in the form of old adversaries Italy, though their much-cited problems should help the Spaniards. Spain will have too much quality for Croatia and Republic of Ireland, with goals likely coming in the second half of low scoring affairs.

It says a lot that no team has ever successfully defended the European Championships. Fatigue, tiredness and complacency will be the hardest opponents in Poland and Ukraine. The battles of El Clasico threatened to pull the national team apart 12 months ago; diluted shenanigans and considerably less aggression in the recent game helped ease the tensions. Goals will be the biggest obstacle as Spain look to pass opponents into submission. They recorded four consecutive 1-0 victories in the knockout stages at the World Cup and fine margins will once again play a crucial part. I think they'll reach the final... but lose out on this occasion. Spain to be runners-up at 4.75.