It may seem peculiar to viewers of international football over the last decade that the Spanish will not head into the Euro 2016 tournament in France this summer as favourites to take the crown.
During the last ten years, La Liga clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid have swept all before them and their core of players has helped the national side to unprecedented success. Of course, Spain’s performance at the 2014 World Cup was a blip and an exception, but even so, the Spanish are still a deadly force in European football and should arguably head into Euro 2016 as favourites to take the crown.
Belgium currently sit on top of the FIFA rankings as the supposed best team in the world, but while they are a good side, few would argue that they are the best-equipped outfit to take the crown. And the bookies would seem to agree. According to Oddschecker, the hosts France the favourites to lift the trophy, with Germany second, the Spanish third, England fourth and Belgium in fifth. But even this seems somewhat skewed. Perhaps Spain's ordeal in Brazil is still playing on the mind because Vicente Del Bosque's side are undoubtedly the strongest team heading to France this summer - here’s why.
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They have arguably strongest squad
Barcelona and Real Madrid players still make up a significant proportion of the Spanish side, but their influence has perhaps diminished slightly over the last few years and this may actually be a positive considering the bitter rivalry between the two sides. Some key members of the squad, including Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Diego Costa and David de Gea now ply their trade in the Premier League which should reduce the friction in the Spanish squad - one that is arguably one of the most dangerous in the contest.
Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, despite their differences at club level, are two of the most imposing centre-backs in the tournament and they will be playing in front of one of the world’s best ‘keepers, De Gea. Meanwhile, Cesar Azpilicueta and Jordi Alba have proved themselves to be two incredibly menacing fullbacks.
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In midfield the Spanish have dominated on the international stage for almost the last ten years - even against the Germans - and it will be no different this summer when the likes of Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Fabregas and David Silva take to the field for Del Bosque’s side. If one thing is for certain, it’s that Spain will command the middle of the park against any team they come up against - they just need to convert all that possession into goals.
And the goalscoring responsibility will fall to their attack, an area which was their Achilles heel at the 2014 World Cup. They managed four goals in three games at the 2014 tournament, but three of these came in a dead rubber against Australia while the solitary other was a penalty in the 5-1 defeat to the Netherlands.
The difficulties up front seemed to stem from the fact that Diego Costa - prolific at club level - did not fit with the Spanish style of play. Costa is a battling warrior, which while effective in most situations, is not necessarily compatible with Spain’s philosophy which requires fleet-footed attackers to pull tightly packed defences out of shape.
This time round, Del Bosque has had more time to think about how he will fit Costa - or indeed the likes of Aritz Aduriz or Paco Alcacer - into the side, which should pay dividends when the Spanish take to the field.
They are vastly experienced
Spain’s golden generation started on the path to world football domination back at Euro 2008 and went on to win the next two major international tournaments at the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.
Eight years on and the squad that took the Euro 2008 crown still looks frighteningly familiar. All of Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta, Fabregas, David Silva and Santi Cazorla all played a part in Euro 2008 final, while Pique, Ramos, Jordi Alba, Iniesta, Fabregas, Silva, Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez all played a part in 2012 final.
All of the aforementioned players are set to be heavily involved in the tournament in France and the chemistry that they all have together will be pivotal.
As long as the Spanish don’t completely flunk like they did inexplicably at the 2014 World Cup, they have more than enough experience to guide themselves through the latter stages of the tournament. There is barely a player among La Roja’s side who has not been there and done it all before at the crucial stages of a huge competition, at both club and international level. Younger sides, like France, England and Belgium perhaps lack this kind of experience and this should stand Spain in good stead.
They are not under as much pressure this time around
The fact that Spain are now only third favourites to win the tournament shows that expectations have dropped slightly following the debacle of the 2014 World Cup. In Brazil, the Spanish seemed crippled by the weight of expectation and were unable to recover from the 5-1 drubbing they received at the hands of the Netherlands in the opening game of the competition.
This time around, although they are still expected to go far in the competition, there is less expectation on the current European champions. Unfortunately for the Spaniards, they do have a somewhat difficult group to navigate through before they reach the knockout stages, though they should be able to emerge from this unscathed.
As well as Spain, Group D contains the Czech Republic, Croatia and Turkey but if Del Bosque's men can build up a head of steam by dispatching these sides then this will stand them in good stead for the rest of the tourney.
Where in previous major competitions the eye of the world was on the Spanish from the off, this summer other sides like favourites France and world champions Germany will likely draw more attention. This is no bad thing for Spain, who will be able to play at this tournament without the crushing burden of being front-runners, as well as being ranked at no.1 in the world FIFA rankings.