As a Spain fan I approach every major international competition with a mixture of hope and despair. Hope because often Spain enters the tournament on a good run and with a squad full of talented players, despair because Spain usually goes out of the tournament by the quarterfinals or earlier.
In fact it has been 44 years since Spain won it’s only senior international title when a goal by Marcelino gave Spain the 1964 European championship in a victory over the then Soviet Union. And it has been 24 years since Spain last reached a final when they lost to a Michel Platini led France at Euro 1984.
Since that time Spain have won an Olympic title at the U-23 level and an U-20 World Cup and finished runner up in both competitions but they have not been able to translate that junior team success into senior level triumphs.
Spain enters Euro 2008 on a good run, the team last lost a match over a year ago in a friendly versus Romania, and after a slow start to Euro 2008 qualifying (losses away to Northern Ireland and Sweden) the team’s play picked up towards the end of qualifying as coach Luis Aragones decided to play with what is known in Spain as the “jugones”, literally the big time players, who are midfielders Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva, a quartet of skillful players. With these players starting Spain scored 3 goals in easily defeating both Denmark and Sweden in qualifying and this spring in pre Euro 2008 friendlies they won 1-0 over both World Cup winners Italy and runner up France.
Since the end of the league seasons around Europe, Spain have played two additional friendlies and although they won them both, 2-1 over Peru and 1-0 against the United States, both games left their share of doubts about Spain’s form entering the tournament. The team may also, however, have been taking it easy so as to not show all of it’s cards to it’s future Euro 2008 opponents either but we will not know that until they start playing games that count. “La Furia Roja”, the Red Fury, named for the primary color of Spain’s national team jersey are in Group D and are paired with Russia, Greece and Sweden a trio of familiar foes. Sweden of course was in the same qualifying group for the tournament as Spain while Russia and current holders Greece shared a group with Spain 4 years ago in Portugal during Euro 2004, a tournament where Spain surprisingly did not advance out of the group stages.
The captain and probably most recognizable player for Spain is it’s incomparable goalkeeper Iker Casillas. Although only 27, it seems like the Real Madrid netminder has been around for ever. Casillas is coming off a fantastic season where he helped lead his club to it’s second straight league title. With both Italy’s Buffon and the Czech Republic’s Cech have slightly down years it can reasonably be argued that right now Casillas is the world’s best goalkeeper. At worst he is among a handful of the very best in the world and his shot stopping ability is one of Spain’s greatest assets. Casillas’ backups are also accomplished keepers too, Liverpool’s Jose Reina is the number 2 and Sevilla’s Andres Palop is the 3rd goalie on the roster.
Defensively Spain plays a line of four players, two outside fullbacks, Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos on the right and Villarreal’s Joan Capdevila on the left. Both are accomplished defenders who are good at getting forward. Ramos is excellent at overlapping while Capdevila is deadly on set pieces where he finds the space to sneak in and score goals.
The central defense may be Spain’s weakest link. The usually reliable Carles Puyol of Barcelona is coming off one of his poorest professional seasons ever but he still remains a tough tackling, all action leader at the back. If he can cut down on his lunging at opposition attackers he should be a solid defender in this tournament. His partner likely will be Valencia’s Carlos Marchena, a tall defender who is not bad at distributing the ball from the back but who can be prone to defensive lapses. Paradoxically Marchena more often plays as a defensive midfielder for his club as his teammate Raul Albiol, who also is on Spain’s Euro 2008 roster, typically starts in central defense. Albiol will be available to sub in for either central defender and like Marchena he too can also play as a defensive midfielder. The other defensive reserves are Juanito of Real Betis, a rugged central defender who is probably more known for his heading ability off of set piece plays than his defending, and Real Mallorca’s Fernando Navarro at left back and Liverpool’s versatile Alvaro Arbeloa who is capable of playing at any of the four defensive positions.
In midfield, Luis Aragones prefers to play with one defensive midfielder and surround him with skillful passers. Originally the idea was for Valencia’s David Albelda to be the sole defensive midfielder but his inactivity for most of the second half of the season due to a dispute with then Valencia coach Ronald Koeman, has kept him from traveling to Euro 2008. The sole defensive midfielder will now be one of two players, either Villarreal’s Brazilian born but naturalized Spanish citizen Marcos Senna or Liverpool’s Xabi Alonso. Marcos Senna is probably the better ball winner and is a hard worker who covers a lot of ground. Xabi Alonso is the better passer of the two although Marcos Senna is not bad at distribution. I think Xabi Alonso, who was not in the best of form for Liverpool this season is a little rash at times in his tackles and that Marcos Senna will be the better option. We’ll find out on Tuesday in Spain’s debut if Aragones agrees with me.
Playing alongside the defensive midfielder will be Barcelona’s Xavi, one of the key players to Spain’s offensive function. His ability to break down a defense with through balls and his all around distribuiton are vital to the attack. Xavi’s Barcelona teammate Andres Iniesta will also play in midfield, nominally on the right but he’ll be given freedom to roam which also will open up room for fullback Sergio Ramos to attack up the right flank. Iniesta is an intelligent player who not only passes well and links up with his teammates but also has an eye for goal. The fourth midfielder will be David Silva, the winger/withdrawn forward from Valencia. Silva will usually lineup on the left side of midfield but he too will have license to roam around the attack and his understanding with the forwards will also be important in breaking down opposing defenses.
Cesc Fabregas had been a starter at the end of qualifying and through the spring but it appears that he now will be coming off the bench as the coach has decided that Xavi and Fabregas are a little too similar in style and that by playing Fabregas along with the other “jugones” will mean that only one forward will start and that Spain will need two forwards to go against what likely in group play will be packed defenses. Fabregas is coming off a brilliant campaign with Arsenal but his form with Spain has not been equally as shining and he’ll likely have to be content with a substitute’s role in this competition. The other reserve midfielders were a pair of surprising selections but which were warmly greeted by fans as both are coming off of fine seasons with their respective clubs. Getafe’s Ruben De la Red is a two way central midfielder who is an adept passer and hard worker while Villarreal’s Santiago Cazorla can play either on the right or left of midfield and is blessed with a fine technique and good passing skills.
At forward the starters are expected to be Liverpool’s Fernando Torres, coming off a sensational first season in England and Valencia’s David Villa. Torres, however, has been an anomaly with Spain and rarely produces his club form in the national colors. The prevailing view is that Liverpool’s more direct style of play suits him better than Spain’s possession style passing game but this tournament is a golden opportunity for Torres to show that he indeed can reproduce his club form with Spain.
David Villa might be Spain’s most potent forward though in this competition. Blessed with two good feet, a quick change of direction and good dribbling ability, Villa is a danger from both the run of play and with his free kicks. A word of caution is that he picked up a thigh injury in training and while he is expected to be ready for Spain’s initial game, he may not be 100%.
On the bench are Dani Guiza of Mallorca, the leading scorer in Spain in the 2007-8 season, who is an opportunistic goalscorer, and Sergio Garcia of Zaragoza, a lightning quick player who can operate as a second forward or as a right wing. Sergio Garcia ended the season in good form even though his club were relegated and it was his present form and the poor recent play of Valencia’s Joaquin which enabled Sergio Garcia to beat Joaquin out for a roster spot.
And no discussion of Spain could be complete without talking about Raul. Despite having a strong season, perhaps his best in the last five years, Raul was left off the squad much to the chagrin of Spain’s Madrid based sporting press. The reasons are that Luis Aragones feels that Raul’s strong personality created internal divisions within the squad 2 years ago at the World Cup in Germany and since Raul would not beat out either Villa or Torres for a starting job, the coach did not feel he would be content sitting on the bench. It is one of those decisions which if things go right for Spain will be viewed as a good move by the coach but if the tournament is not a success then the coach will take the fall for not selecting Raul. Of course since Luis Aragones plans on stepping down post Euro 2008 those complaints could turn out to solely be academic.
Spain plays Russia, Sweden and Greece in that order and they are widely expected to qualify as one of the top two finishers. It is then that the tournament will really begin for Spain as they strive to go beyond the quarterfinals in a major competition. With their stylish passing game Spain should be one of the more enjoyable teams to watch in Switzerland and Austria this month. The question is will they also be one of the more effective?
Miguel Aviles is a Madrid native and lifetime Real Madrid fan currently residing in the United States. He is also the Administrator of the Soccer Futbol Forum, a message board for intelligent discussion of soccer around the globe.