x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Euro 2012: Spain against the clock as they prepare for Italy encounter

Vicente Del Bosque's side aims to be the first country to retain the European Championship trophy - but have played more minutes than their main rivals this season.

Spain's national football team midfielder Xavi Hernandez attends a training session in Gniewino on June 6, 2012, two days ahead of the Euro 2012 football championships opening. Spain will play its first match on June 10 against Italy. AFP PHOTO / PIERRE -PHILIPPE MARCOU
 *** Local Caption *** 695943-01-08.jpg
Spain's national football team midfielder Xavi Hernandez attends a training session in Gniewino on June 6, 2012, two days ahead of the Euro 2012 football championships opening. Spain will play its first match on June 10 against Italy. AFP PHOTO / PIERRE -PHILIPPE MARCOU *** Local Caption *** 695943-01-08.jpg

On Wednesday, Polish flamenco dancers greeted the Spanish national side as they arrived at their base in the village of Gniewino near Gdansk, where Spain tonight play the most anticipated of the opening matches, a clash against 2006 world champions Italy. It was the kind of welcoming befitting the world and European champions.

A day later, La Roja's players endured a more sobering experience. The squad stood in silence on Gniewino's perfectly manicured training pitches to pay their respects to Manolo Preciado, the hugely popular Spanish coach who had just agreed to take charge of Villarreal before dying of a heart attack aged 54. Many knew Preciado personally and heartfelt tributes poured out. The team will wear black armbands tonight in a game where they aim to avoid a repeat of their opening game in the 2010 World Cup when they lost to Switzerland.

The tournament favourites, with more media requests for their games than any of the other 15 teams, Spain are confident and experienced enough to retain the European trophy they won for the first time in 2008, but the world champions have issues and it's unlikely to be the easy ride some think in Iberia.

"We are not invincible," warned Spain coach Vicente del Bosque before Euro 2012.

"The Euros are more difficult to win than the World Cup, because, with the greatest respect, there are no weaker teams," opined Barcelona's Xavi, the player of Euro 2008. "No team has ever retained the trophy and it gets more difficult to win each time because standards improve. It will be extra hard for us because we're the champions and everyone will be trying extra hard to beat us. That's our motivation right there. I understand why teams want to beat us and I see it every week with Barça. I'm used to that, but I'm also used to winning."

Xavi is likely to start in an advanced midfield in Spain's attacking 4-2-3-1 formation alongside Andres Iniesta and David Silva. It's the positions around them which will be changing.

Despite his best efforts, Spain's all-time leading goalscorer David Villa has failed to recover from a broken leg to make the squad. The Asturian explained yesterday that he didn't want to take the risk of further injury. Spain will miss their best striker, the leading scorer in Euro 2008 and joint top in the 2010 World Cup. Quantity is only one aspect of Villa's contribution - he gets the key goals too, four match winners in succession in South Africa. Carles Puyol, another hero of the 2008 and 2010 sides, will also miss the competition through injury. Spain could afford to lose a player or two from a midfielder overstocked with creative talent because they have Juan Mata, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro, Jesus Navas and Santi Cazorla, but losing their best striker and warrior-like defender are significant blows.

Who will replace Villa at the side's number nine has yet to be decided. Despite changes to his game, Athletic Club's Fernando Llorente is perceived to be too static a No 9 in their formation, so that leaves a straight choice between Sevilla's Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Torres. The Chelsea striker scored the only goal in the 2008 final against Germany but has been out of form to the point of ridicule for much of this season. Negredo started against China in the final friendly game last Sunday, with Torres replacing him at half-time. The other option is David Silva, who has played in a false nine role for La Roja.

That's the choice for del Bosque, whose squad arrived in Poland more fatigued than any of their rivals. His 23 players have played a total of 89,884 minutes in 2011/12, 17,000 more minutes than the players from England, Holland and Italy. Thirteen Spanish players have played the equivalent of more than 44 full matches, just three from England and Italy. That's understandable given the bulk of the squad comes from Barca, Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao, three clubs who have excelled in cup competitions, but the Spanish federation have not been shy to exploit Spain's status with a series of lucrative and far flung friendly matches.

Seeking to dampen the expectations in a country which needs a lift amidst economic woe, reserve goalkeeper Pep Reina claimed that Spain "are not favourites" to support his genial coach's words about not being invincible, yet del Bosque added, "If we get it right and execute our game's basic elements - co-ordinated pressure, not just moving the ball around in order to keep hold of it - we are always close to winning."

You can see why. In their captain Iker Casillas, Spain boast the most capped player in the tournament. With 130 caps, the 31-year-old Madrid stopper recently surpassed legendary Basque goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta as Spain's all-time most capped player. He's deeply respected by all in a national team set up historically riven by club rivalries and regional differences.

Casillas will have a defence comprised of his Madrid colleague Sergio Ramos in front alongside Gerard Pique in the centre. Valencia's Barcelona-bound Catalan Jordi Alba is likely to start at left-back with Madrid's versatile Alvaro Arbeloa or Raul Albiol at right-back. Either of those could play in a central role if Pique and Ramos are deemed to be too similar.

Madrid's Xabi Alonso and Barca's Sergio Busquets will sit in front of the defence, a solid and pairing breaking up play and initiating attacks. Don't accuse them of being defensive: Alonso is the second highest scorer for Spain since Del Bosque took charge in 2008.

"Busquets has become a key player," says former Spanish international Gaizka Mendieta "He's a central midfielder who can join the back four if the full-back goes forward. Busi took his time to establish his place in the national side, but now he's vital."

Busquets has also taken charge of the prediction game among the players which used to be organised by Puyol. They'll predict the results of other games for fun; Spaniards are predicting that Spain will become the first team to retain the trophy. Can they do it?

 

sports@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE and Andy Mitten@AndMitten