SEVILLE, SPAIN - JUNE 03: David Silva of Spain celebrates with Jordi Alba after scoring Spain's opening goal during the International Friendly match between Spain and China at La Cartuja stadium on June 3, 2012 in Seville, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Injuries and age have claimed some of Spain's best players, but they're still one of the best teams in the world and favorites to make the final in Ukraine.
It's early June 2008, and the Spanish national team is holed up in a (five-star) cabin in the Austrian alps. Coach Luís Aragonés, distraught about his side's loss in the 2006 World Cup, had recently abandoned his physical, quick-strike approach and helped implement a passing-based style the world was just coming to know as "tiki-taka." Iker Casillas, Xavi Hernández, Fernando Torres and company are happily bonding in the isolated mountain villa's dining room while Aragonés is dancing sevillanas on the table. The side is coming together nicely.
Flash forward two years: The Spanish team, now led by Real Madrid legend Vicente del Bosque, is holed up in a similar establishment, but now in South Africa. The team just had their 35-game unbeaten run abruptly ended by the United States in the Confederations Cup, but they're still coming into the World Cup as heavy favorites. A heavy weight presses on all the players during the run-up to this event -- you can tell from their body language as they address the cameras. Yet still, an air of friendship and confidence lingers as the red-shirted men joke and giggle to each other.
A month later, Spain would win their first ever World Cup when Andrés Iniesta scurried past the Dutch defenders and beat Edwin Van der Saar in the dying seconds of the final match. Iker Casillas, jubilant in the celebrations directly after the match, would grab reporter Sara Carbonero -- his girlfriend -- and kiss her in front of an adoring audience of millions. The bus carrying the players would drive past the Moncloa, and on to the Plaza de España in Madrid, where the side would weepily present the trophy to their mesmerized fans.
It has sure been a wild four years for the Spanish national team.
Now, it's early June 2012 and the cracks are beginning to show in Spain's armor. A side that has been incredibly lucky with injuries in the past few years is finally beginning to become undone. First, it was star forward David Villa -- he of the all-time goals record, the top scorer in Euro 2008 and the silver boot in the 2010 World Cup -- who went down with a knee injury over the winter; then, it was defender Carles Puyol-he of the game-winning goal against Germany, the stout defender and spiritual leader-who was scratched towards the end of the club season.
The air of friendship is gone; it has been replaced by a lingering animosity born from the bitter Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry. Spain's two great club sides have battled viciously in recent years, their matches often ending in physical altercations. Unfortunately for Spain's national side, a huge percentage of the 2012 roster plays for one of these two great clubs. Real Madrid has captain Casillas, defenders Sergio Ramos, Raúl Albiol and Álvaro Arbeloa, and midfielder Xabi Alonso; Barcelona has backup keeper Víctor Valdés, defender Gerard Piqué, midfielders Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc Fábregas and Sergio Busquets, and forward Pedro Rodríguez. Of these players, a few famously dislike each other, especially the presumed center-back pairing of Madrid's Ramos and Barcelona's Piqué.
Most of them, however, have shown they can put aside club rivalries for the good of the group -- Barcelona's Xavi and Iniesta are good friends with Madrid's Casillas and Alonso, for example, despite some of their colleagues' bad blood.
But the questions for Spain heading into this edition of the Euros are different than they have been in the past few years. Before, they were the supremely talented band of underachievers finally turning their great promise into results; now, they are the prohibitive favorites, arrogant and dismissive, who expect results rather than hope for them. There is no longer a sense among the Spanish fan community that this team will choke, that any good run of form will be followed by an even more devastating loss; this feeling, long the province of long-time losing sides, has been replaced by the arrogance of the recently-wealthy, a certainty that the results of the past will continue in the future-a sense of entitlement.
More than any injuries, or any personal feuds, it is this sense of entitlement, of arrogance, that the Spanish team must overcome -- and not just in their fans, but in themselves. They will, in the 2012 Euros, come up against sides that have been practicing for years thinking about them, about how to counter the "tiki-taka," about how to knock off the kings. There will be no easy matches for this side.
Teams will have learned from Real Madrid's tactics against Barcelona these past two years: José Mourinho has, slowly but surely, been able to devise ways to counter the blaugrana's suffocating passing. The most obvious team to mention in this context is Germany, a side that seems to have been created with the sole intention of knocking off the Spanish. Led by slick-passing Real Madrid playmaker (which is no surprise) Mesut Özil, and a host of other strong, fast attackers with a knack for defense, Germany is uniquely suited to become Real Madrid to Spain's Barcelona. But they will not be the only team to try.
Spain's system is based on the interplay of creative attacking ideas from their strong core of midfielders; in Euro 2012, they will employ a variety of players in this role -- from Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets in a double pivot, to Xavi, Iniesta, and some combination of Cesc, David Silva of Manchester City, Santi Cazorla of Málaga, and Juan Mata of Chelsea in an offensive trivot, there will be no shortage of slick-passing, creative midfielders. Spain will not be lacking in the midfield.
It is their defense and their offense, the two extremes of the spectrum, where Spain will be more vulnerable this year than in the past. Puyol's absence will likely push Sergio Ramos out of his traditional (with Spain) right back role into the center. While Ramos is a fantastic center back for Madrid, he and Piqué have rarely played together in the center -- Puyol has normally occupied Ramos' role, with Albiol filling in as well. Similarly, Arbeloa will probably slot into Ramos' role on the right, with Jordi Alba of Valencia on the left -- neither of whom inspire huge sums of confidence. In addition, the loss of Ramos' attacking chops on the right could hamper Spain in more closed-down matches.
Of course, it's entirely possible that Del Bosque will experiment with Albiol or young Athletic Bilbao defender Javi Martínez replacing Puyol, leaving Ramos on the wing and Arbeloa on the bench. This would still leave similar questions, however, as Albiol has barely played this year at Real Madrid, and might have some trouble against fast-paced attacks.
On offense -- and really, I mean striker -- Spain will have to contend with the loss of David Villa, their leading goal scorer. This might not seem like a huge problem when your side has Torres, Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo waiting in the wings, but it could still prove to be complicated. Villa, unlike the other three, was schooled for the past few years in the Barcelona system, which is basically a club replica of Spain's offense. He could easily shift to the wings, drop back into coverage, and break quickly from any angle. Negredo and Llorente are both relatively large men, who, while quick, don't have the same playing style as Villa, and would find it harder to shift positions as naturally; Torres has been slumping for the past few years -- though he has been seemingly turning it on recently --and has similar, though not quite as pronounced, problems to Llorente and Negredo.
All of this shows us that Spain will need, at the very least, to begin to evolve if they want to continue their run of victories. They'll need to make use of all the assets they have in order to make up for the loss of the important assets they won't have. Javi Martínez, Juan Mata, David Silva, Llorente -- all of these players will need to step up to fill the very large shoes of their injured counterparts. Spain might need to become a little more direct, play a few more balls in the air to make use of their strength and size up front; and they might need to adjust their defensive scheme to make up for Puyol's absence, especially if Ramos and Piqué have a hard time communicating.
With the weight of the World Cup finally lifted from this supremely talented side, it will be fascinating to watch them attempt another run. Whether they can become the first side to win two consecutive Euros and a World Cup in between will depend entirely on how they answer the questions that loom over their preparation.
But with Vicente del Bosque at the helm, and Xavi and Casillas running the show, well, there's no way to pick against la Roja making it to at least the semifinals.
Projected Lineup (4-3-3)
GK Iker Casillas LB Jordi Alba CB Gerard Pique CB Sergio Ramos RB Alvaro Arbeloa CM Xabi Alonso CM Sergio Busquets CM Xavi Hernandez LF Andres Iniesta CF Fernando Llorente RF David Silva
Xavi: Even with a couple of playmakers manning the wings, everything that Spain does is likely to run through Xavi. Others will tally more goals and assists, but he is the puppet master.
Finalists: Germany might have caught up to Spain since the 2010 World Cup, but they're the only ones. Spain are still the first or second most talented team in the tournament, depending on who you ask, and anything less than a final appearance would be a disappointment.