New finalists, familiar title contenders at expanded Euros
LONDON (AP) The European Championship enters a new era with Spain seeking to reassert its old supremacy.
Invincible between 2008 and 2012 while claiming back-to-back European titles and finally tasting World Cup glory , the Spanish halo slipped two years ago with a humiliating blowout in Brazil.
How better to show that the first-round elimination in 2014 was just a blip than by completing a hat trick of European titles in Paris on July 10. It will be a tougher challenge than before, with the Euros growing by eight teams to 24 in France.
Although Spain's national team has not collected a trophy since Euro 2012, domestic clubs have swept up continental trophies for the three seasons. The Champions League has been won by Real Madrid (twice) and Barcelona while Sevilla completed a hat trick of Europa League titles in May.
The sternest challenges in France for Vicente del Bosque's team are likely to come from World Cup holder Germany and the host nation, boasting a talented young squad but whose plans have been derailed - as so often - by off-field controversy.
Then there is the next rung of contenders yet to conquer the continent, just the type of teams Del Bosque fears.
A golden generation of Belgium players, embodied by Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, has to live up to their promise and start delivering on the international stage for the world's second-ranked team. England is defensively susceptible but has a plethora of fresh attacking options, including Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford, capable of challenging if not emerging with winners' medals.
''It's very difficult - very difficult - because there are other teams that have been far from big titles for the last few years and need to win this,'' said the 65-year-old Del Bosque, who could be entering his last tournament as Spain coach. ''We want to get rid of whatever happened in the past and face the future as a big challenge.''
Unlike at the World Cup, Spain's title defense can surely not end at the first hurdle in France this month. Croatia, the Czech Republic and Turkey await in Group D and even a third-place finish could be sufficient to advance in the reconfigured tournament's new round of 16.
Germany is more anxious than Spain about the group stage following setbacks in qualifying and friendlies since lifting the World Cup and veterans like former captain Philipp Lahm retiring. After games against Poland and Ukraine, Germany faces Northern Ireland, a first-time finalist which qualified as group winners.
''I am a player who likes to play against big names, big opponents, because you always know who is approaching,'' Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer said. ''And so it is a little inconvenient. Most times you can only lose against such (smaller) teams.''
And underdogs can thrive at the Euros. Just look at Denmark winning in 1992 and Greece lifting the trophy 12 year later. Neither nation made it to France.
What chance another surprise champion 12 years on? Albania, Iceland, Slovakia and Wales joined Northern Ireland in qualifying for the first time.
Only Wales boasts a true world-beater in its ranks. It's more than Gareth Bale's goals that have powered the Welsh to their first tournament since the 1958 World Cup. It's the dedication of the world's most expensive player to commit to the national cause when Real Madrid provides the status, silverware and salary.
''He sets the level and the bar for everybody else to try to aspire to,'' Wales coach Chris Coleman. ''Because his standards are so high then that brings the best out of the rest of us, me included.''
Just as Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo does for Portugal. For the 31-year-old Ballon D'Or holder who has won every significant club and individual honor, a title with Portugal is all that is missing.
''He is so decisive that he can win some matches and be very important,'' Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. ''But he has to have the support of the whole team.''
The French are seeking the support of a nation still reeling from a 2015 scarred by attacks on Paris where the Stade de France was targeted by suicide bombers as France played Germany in November.
Preparations for Didier Deschamps' team have not been smooth. Striker Karim Benzema was cut due to his involvement in an alleged extortion scam over a sex tape. France, however, can still deploy one of the most sought-after midfielders in Paul Pogba.
Deschamps, who captained France to glory at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, sees a need to build trust with his players.
''The new generation of players has flaws but also many good qualities,'' the coach said. ''This French national team is rather young, but these young players play for the best clubs.''
France's World Cup hopes were only ended by eventual champion Germany in the quarterfinals two years ago. Like Spain, Italy and England couldn't even make it out of their groups in Brazil.
Italy has a challenging first round, with Belgium and Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Sweden in Group E alongside Ireland.
''We are experiencing a time of transition, especially regarding talented people in Italian football,'' said Italy coach Antonio Conte, who moves to Chelsea after the Euros. ''In Italy, just 34 percent of players who play in the championship are Italian. This means that the proportion has fallen and it's very difficult to find players who can wear the blue shirt.
''We also have a history and a tradition that we have to respect and this has a weight and a pressure.''
Few of the 552 players and 24 head coaches won't be feeling the pressure in the 51 games across 31 days in France.
Top two advance to the round of 16 along with four best third-place finishers.
GROUP A: Albania, France, Romania, Switzerland.
GROUP B: England, Russia, Slovakia, Wales.
GROUP C: Germany, Northern Ireland, Poland, Ukraine.
GROUP D: Croatia, Czech Republic, Spain, Turkey.
GROUP E: Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Sweden.
GROUP F: Austria, Hungary, Iceland, Poland.
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports