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Who’s next?

European Championship (EC). Some would consider this a better competition than the World Cup but it’s hard to compare something which is continental to competition that is world wide. For me, the World Cup still edges it. Since Spain won the last EC in 2008, they went on a 4 year reign that included adding the Jules Rimet trophy in 2010 to their trophy cabinet. If Spain were to retain the cup, they will be the first country to ever win the EC, World Cup and a consecutive EC.

The last tournament was held in Austria-Switzerland and it will be another joint hosting for this year’s edition, with Ukraine and Poland playing host to 14 other teams. Since the top leagues in the world are concentrated exclusively in Europe, the hopes to see quality matches are fair expectations. Euro’96 was the first of this tournament which I followed closely. It produced a lot of great memories and several great players emerged in that tournament. I can remember seeing a short-haired Pavel Nedved putting himself about in that tournament.

Including this upcoming one, it would have been the 5th EC that I’ve seen. Nothing beats the excitement of Euro’2000 in Belgium-Holland. The team that France had that year was nothing short of amazing. The most boring one without question will have to be Euro’04 in Portugal. Greece deserved respect for winning it. I don’t prefer that defensive way that they went about to lifting the trophy but one can only do their best with the players they have.

This year’s edition, all the top European countries have made it to the finals. You can put a case out for Belgium, Norway and Switzerland who are all missing. More so Belgium because they currently have what is their golden generation. That aside, the usual giants of the game will be competing for the trophy. Spain, Germany, Italy, France, Holland and England will all be there and that makes for a very interesting tournament to look forward to. I will not claim this to be an in-depth preview. It just based on my personal take on the teams.

Now, let’s look at the favourite.

Spain

Reigning champions and holders of the World Cup, you really can’t look past them. Half of the team is supplied by just two clubs. However, they are often considered the two best clubs in the world right now, Barcelona and Real Madrid. While Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo won’t be able to play for them, Spain’s squad is hardly second rate. Their midfielders are household names that roll off the tongue. Xavi, Iniesta, Alonso, Silva and Fabregas just to name a few.

They will be without the services of Carles Puyol and David Villa. The former offers them courageous defending and a direct route option while the latter’s efficiency in front of goal has already been felt at club level. Having just played almost an entire season at centre back, Vicente del Bosque has a replacement ready made in Sergio Ramos. Just like Puyol, Ramos is the one who will throw himself into every challenge and be the bully while allowing Gerard Pique to mop up.

As for the striking role, it looks increasingly likely that Fernando Llorente will be the one leading the line in the absence of Villa. This, I think will turn out to be a successful swap. Before this season, I was skeptical whether Llorente could fit into the style that Spain plays. The tiki-taka type of football that is generally employed by teams in La Liga and especially Barcelona. However, since Marcelo Bielsa has taken over Athletic Bilbao, he has used pretty much the same tactic and it has worked with Llorente as the forefront of the attack.

There would be no surprise as to the style that del Bosque will use. Xavi and Iniesta will be the fulcrum of their midfield with either Fabregas or Silva supplementing the playmaking further forward. Passing will be the key and opposing teams will spend more time chasing after the ball planning their attack (almost feel like I’m talking about Barcelona, minus the group pressing). However, as we’ve seen over the course of this season especially, that style can be negated. Good defensive shape and not rashly jumping into tackles could see Spain having most of the possession but create very little. Switzerland did it to good effect in the first match of South Africa 2010.

If there’s a weakness in this side, it’s their defence. Pique and Ramos should form a formidable partnership at the heart of the defence. Even if opposition find their way past these two, there’s still the tough task of beating Iker Casillas in goal. The Real Madrid custodian has been a mainstay in the Spanish national side for years now, and remains a tough keeper to beat. The weakness is arguably on the left and right of the centre back partnership.

Arbeloa may play for Madrid but he’s hardly a world class player in that position. Neither is Jordi Alba on the left hand side. As someone who only established himself as a first choice starter for Valencia in the 2010/11 season, he goes into this tournament very much the rookie in the side. If opposition wingers / wide players could get at them and concentrate their attack there, they might be able to find a way through for a chance to have a go at Casillas. This is where the role of Sergio Busquest becomes crucial as he’s expected to cover for the full backs whenever they are overly exposed.

Spain rightly go into this as favourites but it is a great ask to for them to win their 3rd consecutive major tournament. There’s the tiredness factor involved as they had not had much rest since 2008 and the intense tussle between Barcelona and Real Madrid for the title this season. The likes of Xavi, Javi Martinez, Llorente, Ramos, Busquests, Casillas and Silva (49) have all played 50 plus matches already, in the season that just past.

Spain will be there in the knockout rounds and perhaps the final but I just don’t see them winning it.

Prediction : Semifinalist/finalist

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