Euro 2012 Preview: Spain
France was the last nation to go into a tournament as reigning world and European champions, but its efforts to win a first "treble" in international history floundered dramatically after finishing last in Group A at the 2002 World Cup.
Spain is attempting the same this summer. Though preparations have been hampered by injuries to Barcelona pair Carles Puyol and David Villa, as well as concerns over the form of Fernando Torres and the fitness of Xavi Hernandez, there seems no danger that it will repeat France's group-stage flop from a decade ago.
Spain is in the middle of its golden era: it has a settled style of play, cover in every position, a talented crop of youngsters (Spain is also favored to win Olympic gold later this summer) and, most importantly, broke its psychological barrier of not getting past quarterfinals.
Captain and goalkeeper Iker Casillas said the team always remembers its defeat by Switzerland in the 2010 World Cup's opening game and is now prepared to find solutions against teams happy just to defend. With Italy and Ireland its first two opponents in Group C, it may need to.
This has been the most prolific season of Xavi's Barcelona career -- his 14 goals marks only the second time he's reached double figures in 14 seasons -- but it has also been among the most frustrating, as injury has taken its toll. Ever since the World Cup success, Xavi has had problems with his Achilles tendon, and though he has promised to be fully fit for the tournament, playing six games in three weeks might be a tough challenge.
The Barcelona midfielder started the last two tournaments on the bench but forced his way into contention both times. As a 21-year-old at Euro 2008, it was his penalty that knocked out Italy in the quarterfinal shootout, while he replaced the injured Villa in the semifinal against Russia and set up two goals in a 3-0 win. It was a similar story at the World Cup.
He was superb whenever called upon, and it was no surprise that it was his shot that rebounded back to Andres Iniesta for the final's winning goal. "Cesc is essential for the team, and he deserves to be part of the side, but unfortunately only 11 can play," Spain coach Vicente del Bosque. "Even if he starts on the bench, though, that won't worry him.
Ramos began his career at right back but has moved, this season, to center back. He has done so well that Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho wants him to stay there next season. "He soaks up football knowledge like a sponge and he is a much better central defender than a right back," said his former coach at Seville, Joaquin Caparros. Only 26, Ramos already has 83 caps for Spain, and in the absence of Puyol, can prove himself as a new team leader.
It was Barcelona's worst week of the season, probably the worst of Pep Guardiola's four-year spell in charge: it lost a Champions League semifinal first leg at Chelsea and then, at home, a league match to Real Madrid that ended its Spanish title hopes. Sitting on the bench for both games was Pique, who lost his place in the team (to a midfielder who filled in at center back, Javier Mascherano). Guardiola felt Pique's focus had lapsed: he had a celebrity girlfriend (Shakira, a relationship that has since ended) and had fronted an advertising campaign for one of Spain's largest fashion brands. Now that Puyol is missing, the cultured defender Spaniards have nicknamed "Piquenbauer" needs to rediscover his form, and fast.
The short answer to this is yes: six members that won the under-21 European Championship last summer were named in del Bosque's squad, and the transition is a smooth one because each team plays within the same system. The only fear for some of the youngsters is burnout: Athletic Bilbao played 63 matches this season, one more than Barcelona, and Athletic players like Javi Martinez and Iker Muniain want to play in the Olympics as well as Euro 2012. Both should get their chance, while Valencia's Jordi Alba is expected to slot in at left back and show why Barcelona is monitoring his progress.
See previous answer: the spine of Spain's recent success -- Puyol, Xavi, Torres and Villa -- may not be at its best, but players are coming through all the time. Ramos is only 26, but is already Spain's third-highest capped defender: the likes of David Silva, 26, Fabregas, 25, Juan Mata, 24, and Sergio Busquets, 23, represent the present, but behind them, Thiago Alcantara, 21, David de Gea, 21, and Muniain, 19, are the future.
As a former defender, Del Bosque only takes calculated risks.
He will stick to Spain's normal 4-3-3 formation, which becomes 4-2-3-1 when Busquets and Xabi Alonso need to sit in front of the defense.
Barcelona's experiments with 3-4-3 led to some calls for Del Bosque to try the same, but he has resisted, while a more conservative 4-4-2 is far too restricting for his gifted players. Fernando Llorente is expected to start up front, and his aerial game will provide a new threat that recent Spain teams have lacked.