In defence of their crown, Spain still the gold standard at Euro 2012

Despite currently holding both the World Cup and European Championship, Spain’s chances of retaining their title were largely written off by those in the know ahead of the tournament. The absence of Carles Puyol and David Villa would be considerable, no team has managed to win three consecutive major tournaments before and Spain were apparently too burnt out after a marathon domestic season to have a serious tilt at Euro 2012.

Ahead of their opening match against Italy, Spain’s 23-man squad had already played a total of 89,884 minutes, around 17,000 more than their opponents. Nine of them were also still playing in the Copa Del Rey final, while most squads had already assembled. The opening stages of the Italy game appeared to reinforce these fears. Spain appeared lethargic and an abundance of talented midfielders, lacking an attacking focal point, were slow and predictable.

Fernando Torres, Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Llorente were all overlooked in favour of Cesc Fabregas, operating as a false number nine, in what many perceived to be Vicente Del Bosque’s attempt to crowbar in as many talented midfielders as possible. With Fabregas, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, David Silva, Andres Iniesta, Juan Mata, Santi Carzorla and Xabi Alonso at his disposal, who could blame him.

The false nine, used by Barcelona on occasion, was adopted to counter Italy’s 3-5-2 formation and nullify the threat posed by Andrea Pirlo. It was largely successful and Fabregas netted Spain’s equaliser. Spain introduced Torres and Jesus Navas late in the game to stretch a tiring Italy side and had the Chelsea marksman not spurned some late chances, they may have defeated their fierce rivals.

Having their 14 game run of successive competitive victories broken by the draw with Italy, La Roja returned to winning ways by trouncing Ireland in a staggeringly one-sided contest. Torres was reinstated and opened the scoring within four minutes. Silva then added a second early in the second half before Torres netted his second of the game. The Chelsea man then made way for Fabregas, who added a fourth as Spain enjoyed 78% of possession and completed more passes than any other side in European Championship history. They top Group C on goal difference ahead of Croatia, who they play on Monday. If they avoid defeat, they will top the group and face the runners up in Group D.

Despite a strong start to the tournament, Spain have already demonstrated a tendency to overcomplicate and sometimes tiki-taka themselves to a standstill. Iniesta and Silva start wide but drift inside as they congest central midfield, intent on controlling the game with sustained possession and by pressing high up the pitch. They often look more potent utilising wingers and a conventional striker, but only tend to adopt that approach late in games. They have a squad rich in attacking options and it will be interesting to see how the approach evolves as the tournament unfolds.

Their defensive solidity, shorn of Puyol’s presence and leadership, has yet to be fully tested, but greater challenges lie ahead. Germany look formidable and will be keen to avenge Spanish defeats in the finals of the previous European Championships and World Cup. Yet another Spain v Germany final looks like a distinct possibility but the reigning champions remain the gold standard and the team to beat.

Check out the Euro 2012 odds and get some tips on the European Championships betting.

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