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Team preview: Spain

June 4, 2010
Schaerlaeckens By Leander Schaerlaeckens
ESPN.com
(Archive)

Spain is a choke artist no more. It proved as much during Euro 2008, when it romped to the final. Yet this is a different story, a different tournament. One it's never won before. Spain, in spite of some superb teams, has never cracked the semifinals in the modern era. Along with Brazil, there's no bigger favorite to win this tournament than Spain. Remarkably, Spain has lost just once in its past 47 games -- to the U.S. no less, in last summer's Confederations Cup -- and won all 10 of its World Cup qualifiers.

While retaining the high-scoring, low-conceding core that won the Euro, much of which is still young and in the strength of their careers, more splendid players have risen, adding further depth to an already preposterously affluent talent pool.

Yet for all that manpower, there are worries aplenty, all of them related to injury. Team engine Xavi has a torn calf muscle, and could be less than fully fit. Cesc Fabregas has a fractured shin and is racing to make it back in time. Marcos Senna, David Silva and Santi Cazorla have battled bumps and bruises all year, as has Jesus Navas. Striker Fernando Torres isn't expected to recover from his knee surgery in time for Spain's opening game.

Then there's the prospect of the round of 16. Spain's group will cross over with Group G. That means that if Spain wins Group H -- which is expected, considering the weakness of group opponents Switzerland, Honduras and Chile -- it could face Brazil, Ivory Coast or Portugal in its first elimination game, a daunting prospect for anyone.

Coach: Vicente del Bosque

Del Bosque took over from Luis Aragones, who had led his team to the Euro, and wisely changed very little. The diminutive and unassuming manager had been wildly successful with Real Madrid from 1999 through 2003, winning the Champions League twice and the Primera Division twice, doing what he does best, getting a team of stars to mesh.

With Spain, his winning percentage is an astonishing 96 percent, in which his team has scored 69 goals in just 25 games while conceding a mere 15.

Style of play

In a tightly organized and deceptively opportunistic 4-4-2, in which every midfielder is a capable attacker too, the Spanish cobble together a flurry of short, direct passes to hold possession and feed their quick strikers a barrage of nifty through balls. Those are backed by physical defenders and wingbacks not shy of advancing when the chance presents itself.

Players to watch

1. Xavi. His potential absence due to injury could be catastrophic for Spain. His passing is an intrinsic part of its essence. He'll be badly needed, as of the second round at least.

2. Fernando Torres. Like, Xavi, Torres is paramount. He'll have to make a strong recovery for Spain to fulfill its expectations.

3. Joan Capdevila. At 32, the versatile left back will have to spend an entire month shutting down right wingers in a tournament rich in them. He represents the only reasonable route toward the Spain goal.

Who's hot

David Villa. Villa, who is loudly marching toward all sorts of goal-scoring records, scored 21 more Primera Division goals for Valencia this season, leading his poverty-stricken club to a good third-place finish. With Torres hobbling, if present at all, the onus will be on Villa now more than ever to deliver the goals.

Who's not

Are you kidding? This is Spain.

Three key questions

1. Will the recent injuries affect this team's performance? When Torres and Fabregas went down with injuries prior to the end of their club seasons, it seemed that the injury bug would ravage the European champions. But both players appear on course to play their part in South Africa, so the regulars should have adequate time to gel before the knockout rounds.

2. Will a dearth of minutes breed discontent among the team's myriad world-class benchwarmers? With so many game-changers available for Spain, will del Bosque be able to massage his lineup to provide adequate time on the pitch for the various stars?

3. Can the Spanish cope with the pressure once more to become only the second team (after France) to be both European and world champions at the same time? Del Bosque's side has the talent to win it all, but a potentially tough road to the final and some outside pressure could derail Spain's journey.

Projected lineup

G Iker Casillas, Real Madrid (Spain)
D Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid (Spain)
D Carles Puyol, Barcelona (Spain)
D Gerard Pique, Barcelona (Spain)
D Joan Capdevila, Villareal (Spain)
M Andres Iniesta, Barcelona (Spain)
M Xavi, Barcelona (Spain)
M Xabi Alonso, Real Madrid (Spain)
M David Silva, Valencia (Spain)
F Fernando Torres, Liverpool (England)
F David Villa, Barcelona (Spain)