Spain approach the Euro 2012 in a curious shape. They have arguably the best midfield ever assembled by a national team. But there are some open questions at both the front and the back.
Until someone knocks them from their throne, La Roja - as the Spanish national side are nicknamed - have to be considered the favorites for the 2012 European Soccer Championships in Poland and Ukraine.
A tournament win in Eastern Europe would be the first time any nation succeeded in pulling off a Euro-World Cup-Euro triple and would cement their claim to be considered one of the best national sides in football history.
But for a team with such a grand pedigree, and a perfect record in qualifying for the tournament, the advance press is surprisingly muted, with a surprising number of pundits predicting a win for Germany or even the Netherlands on July 1. Even coach Vicente del Bosque has been stressing the quality of the competition from Northern Europe.
Strangely, Spain may be the most imbalanced great team ever to play the game. And that, logically, is both a weakness and a strength.
Barca + Real = Success
To say that Spain have a strong midfield is like saying the young Tiger Woods was a pretty decent golfer.
Xavi Hernandez is the man in Spain's fabulous middle
Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets are among the crème de la crème of the game. Alonso plays for Real Madrid, while the other four members of the quintet ply their trade with Barcelona.
So non-coincidentally, La Roja's winning formula is essentially Barca minus Messi plus a whole lot of Madrid, and it programs their style. Spain play a similar short-passing game as the Catalonian giants, racking up huge advantages in possession time and wearing down opponents, who quickly begin to wonder what on earth they have to do to ever get hold of the ball.
The general is Xavi, one of the most intelligent players ever to take to the pitch. The 32-year-old is rumoured to have misplaced a pass once back in the late ‘90s, although no video footage of it exists.
Midfield dominance has allowed del Bosque to overcome deficits elsewhere in the squad over the past four years, most notably at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where Spain claimed the title without having a true center forward in their starting eleven.
But both Barcelona and Real spectacularly failed to reach the finals of the Champions League this season, and that has a number of pundits questioning whether the Spanish concept may have passed its zenith.
Spain's Achilles' heel could be that midfield dominance rarely translates into big margins of victory.
In the Euro 2008 final, for instance, La Roja absolutely outplayed Germany. But the game, which ended 1-nil, was but a single lucky deflection away from extra time.
Villa came up big in 2012
Likewise, in the 2010 World Cup final, an outmatched Netherlands had a potential late game-winner on Arjen Robben's foot before Spain finally clinched the 1-0 win. And an injury looks likely to worsen that shortcoming.
At the World Cup, Spain only barely managed to compensate for the poor form of striker Fernando Torres, who had just returned from injury. Diminutive forward David Villa admirably filled the gap in front of goal despite being several inches too short for the job.
This time around, it's the 30-year-old Villa who's saddled with an injury, a broken leg from last December. Meanwhile, Torres has never been able to recover the form of his early playing days – the Chelsea striker's ineffectiveness has made him the butt of many a joke from the always humane British tabloid press.
In the absence of those two, Spain's best striker option is Athletic Bilbao's Fernando Llorente, a decent – but no more than decent – alternative.
Installing someone up front who can convert the opportunities created by Spain's midfield is one of del Bosque's top priorities. But he'll also have to keep an eye on the back.
Spain's impressive record of clean sheets is down in great part to goalkeeper Iker Cassilas and central defender Carles "The Wall" Puyol.
But Puyol's throwback mane of long curls and the deep lines on his face – he's a dead ringer for guitarist Mitch Mitchell from aging indie-rock band Guided by Voices – are visual reminders that the Wall has entered his mid-thirties. And he's not at the Euro 2012 after picking up a late-season injury. So who's going to fill the gap?
Puyol has the look of a veteran rock star
Barcelona did not exactly wow the world conceding three goals to Chelsea in their Champions League semifinal tie, and Real Madrid had similar problems against Bayern Munich in theirs. That's led to some people to wonder whether Spain's back four will be up to the job at the Euro 2012.
Spain don't have a particularly easy qualifying group either. Italy have shown signs of recovering from their debacle at the World Cup. Croatia are a side with plenty of skilled players with big-club experience, and Ireland are physically tough and determined.
La Roja's opening match against the Italians on June 10 in Gdansk should provide a good litmus text of whether their marvellous midfield once again sets the tone, or whether Spain's long run of success may peter out.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Matt Zuvela