Looking bullish

The reigning European and World champion goes into the tournament boasting a 100% record in the qualifiers and a squad of unrivalled talent. Shreedutta Chidananda takes stock.

No country has won three international tournaments in a row, yet few would bet against Spain becoming that team at EURO 2012. The reigning European and World champion goes into the tournament boasting a 100% record in the qualifiers and a squad of unrivalled talent. Spain's success is built on unrelenting possession and control — a model that would have come apart without exceptionally gifted players. Injuries to big names and the question of fatigue notwithstanding, Spain remains the indisputable favourite.

Luis Aragones's Euro 2008 triumph was groundbreaking for it banished the cloud of self-doubt hanging over generations of underachievers. All of a sudden the crutches had come off a nation mentally crippled by years of disappointment. Vicente del Bosque's task, when he took over from Aragones, was to keep that fire burning, and boy did he! Spain won his first 13 games in charge, in the process setting a record for the longest unbeaten run (35 matches). He crowned that with the World Cup, making the Iberians the first European side to win the competition outside its own continent.

The Spanish are notionally a 4-2-3-1 but at times play 4-3-3. Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso anchor the midfield in front of a back four; Xavi plays slightly ahead of them (but can drop deep alongside); Andres Iniesta and David Silva attack on either side behind (or with) a central striker. Alonso could make way if an extra attacker is deemed necessary, while Cesc Fabregas, Pedro, Juan Mata — all world-class — can come off the bench. Pedro and Jesus Navas, despite their eyebrow-raising inclusions, can add width to what is relatively a narrow side.

Busquets may be lampooned for his theatrical diving but his team-mates realize how valuable he is. The Barcelona midfielder is strong in the tackle, breaks up play and always keeps the ball in circulation. It is a function vital to the success of both club and country, and one Marcos Senna performed with distinction for the national side before him.

The Spanish system has worked without too many hitches thus far but the biggest test may yet lie ahead. David Villa, the country's leading scorer of all time and an utterly integral component of the seleccion, will not travel to Poland and Ukraine after failing to recover from his broken tibia. True del Bosque has replacements in Fernando Llorente — who has had an outstanding campaign with Athletic Bilbao — and Fernando Torres. The two may possess other attributes but simply cannot match Villa for class.

Spain's defence — once taken for granted — too has thrown up cracks. The redoubtable Carles Puyol is out with injury, meaning Sergio Ramos will have to switch to centre-back. It is the form of his partner, Gerard Pique, though, that is causing brows to furrow in worry. An excellent ball-player and the genesis of attacking moves from his deep positions, Pique has struggled with injury and form. Del Bosque will hate to tinker much with a proven combination but Javi Martinez could be handed a chance at some stage. Alvaro Arbeloa will surely be first-choice at right-back (although Juanfran is a tempting option), while the young, exciting Jordi Alba takes his place on the left.

The larger issue could be one of fatigue; Barcelona (which contributes seven players to the squad) was involved in the Copa del Rey final with Athletic Bilbao as late as May 25. Besides, Real Madrid and Barcelona, both of whom reached the semis of the Champions League, acrimoniously fought for the league title. Del Bosque has dismissed the latter issue in the past and admitted he has little control over the former. No opponent, though, will take his team lightly.

The team:

Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas, Victor Valdes, Pepe Reina.

Defenders: Raul Albiol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Alvaro Arbeloa, Jordi Alba.

Midfielders: Javi Martinez, Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, Santi Cazorla, David Silva, Jesus Navas.

Forwards: Juanfran, Pedro Rodriguez, Fernando Torres, Alvaro Negredo, Juan Mata, Fernando Llorente.