Spain teach Euros midfield lesson

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The football world has gushed over the Spanish midfield since they first came to prominence at Euro 2008.

The perennial underachievers finally stopped the rot that year, as Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas passed their way to a first Euros triumph since 1964.

Spain ended 44 years of hurt by falling back on the supreme talents produced by the Masia academy of Barcelona. A team can only suspend disbelief for so long - nations rarely dominate international football for more than a few years - but Spain have defied the odds thanks to the fruits of La Masia.

And what's more worrying for Europe's other contenders is that Spain's midfield has only got better since Austria and Switzerland in 2008.

The ageless Xavi and the peerless Iniesta remain, a duo so skilled in the art of possession that they are surely the game's grandmasters. They move the ball around like a careful chess players, drawing the opposition into a reckless mistake before capitalising with ruthless efficiency.

But the supporting cast around the Barca pair has also matured, and improved considerably on the Euro 2008 squad. In place of Marcos Senna and Rueben de la Red, Spain now boast Sergio Busquets and Juan Mata, while David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla and Xabi Alonso all have four years more experience under their belts.

Fabregas has probably come on the most in the cycle between the tournaments. At Euro 2008, as a spritely 21-year-old, Fabregas was a bit-part player as the Gunner found his path blocked by Xavi and Iniesta. The fact he played in England didn't help - out of the spotlight, his stellar Arsenal displays did not catch the eye with the ease enjoyed by those plying their trade in La Liga.

At the World Cup, he was once again the team's impact substitute, the first-choice when a change needed to be made, but still outside the exclusive starting 11. The glory of the team somewhat offset the midfielder's personal disappointment at missing out.

And despite an opening goal in Spain's Euro 2012 match against Italy, Fabregas dropped to the bench against Ireland. The 25-year-old would walk into any other team's midfield, but so would many of the teammates on Vicente Del Bosque's bench.

Surely, the Spanish coach enjoys a pick from one of the greatest midfield groups of all-time? Against Ireland, Spain's bench was warmed by Mata, Javi Martinez, Cazorla, Jesus Navas, Pedro Rodriguez and Fabregas. Keeping them off the pitch were Iniesta, Silva, Alonso, Xavi and Busquets.

Spain is truly enjoying a golden generation of midfielders. Such a talented group of players rarely find themselves in the same decade, and Spain have reaped the benefits at the past two tournaments.

This year, they are favourites again and with good reason. Only Xavi is more than 30 years old, ensuring that the vast majority of this team will be challenging for honours in Brazil in two years time, and probably in France in 2016. The Spanish production line of talent is as relentless as it's passing - seven of their squad are 26 or younger.

Against Ireland, Xavi completed more passes (127) than all of Ireland's top six passers combined. Stephen Ward, Glenn Whelan, Aidan McGeady, Sean St Ledger, Richard Dunne and Keith Andrews combined for just 118 as the reigning champions toyed with their opponents.

The 4-0 victory was a record-breaking night for Spain, as their 859 passes set a new record for a match at the Euros. The team's ferocious quest for possession - fueled by their tiki-taka style - was too much for an Irish team full of endeavour but short of quality.

Del Bosque now has an awkward problem to solve before their match with Croatia. The hero in Vienna four years ago, Fernando Torres, returned to form with two well-taken goals, staking a claim to keep his starting berth against the Croatians.

Which means Fabregas, who had operated in the 'false 9' position against Italy, could be set for more personal disappointment at a major championships. But the Barca man has time on his side. It may be frustrating for the former-Arsenal captain, but he finds himself in one of the most talented midfield's of all-time.

This group of record-breakers is going to be around for years to come, and Fabregas will be playing a central role in its success.

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David Silva
Xabi Alonso
Fernando Torres
Juan Mata

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