Monday, 4 June 2012

Spanish Dominion Not A Guarantee

Regarded as the overwhelming favourites to defend their European crown, Spain are the darlings of the footballing universe. However, they, like any team, are not immune from the problems of tournament environs.

With a cold determination in the eye, Spain hawk and yearn for a successful defence of their European title. With equal fervour and intensity, vast swathes of the footballing universe seem ready to hand them such an accomplishment beforehand. Such arguments and reasoning is predicated on the assumption that Spain harbour a squad of invincible, stupendous, untouchable demigods; that the Spanish midfield possesses a proclivity to instantaneously transform games into havens of free-flowing, beautiful football. Pragmatically, this is absurd. In International football, nothing is assured with such bashful confidence. In the vacuum of tournament football, nothing can be expected nor predicted with any degree of serviceable consistency. Spain, just like every other team slowly edging towards Poland & Ukraine, have questions to answer, problems to extinguish, conundrums to face.

At the nucleus of such a belief is the inherent and eventual disharmony in the group. The recent history of Spanish football has been dominated by the overbearing, incessant, brutal rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Theirs is a rivalry deeply-entrenched in the ideology and consciousness of fans, coaches and players alike. So deep does the domestic tension run that it has morphed into a situation whereby a national solidarity must be called into question. The enmity between the Barca and Real, espoused by the grand masters Mourinho and Guardiola and enacted by the very players who Vicente Del Bosque now calls together in a symphony of united passion, is just not conducive with a smooth, seamless concept of preparation.

Even if Del Bosque can mobilise his squad, so forcefully anathema at club level, into one considered group of united players, he will remain devoid of his main man. Carles Puyol, the behemoth of Barca, the absolute fulcrum of Spanish resiliency and heart, is missing. A knee-injury put pay to his hopes of appearing in a sixth major tournament. A real bulldog of a defender, Puyol instigates heart and determination via his mere presence. A fearsome leader, Puyol can be relied upon not only to keep out, but score also, goals of the most vital order. A conspicuous legend, Puyol marshals the backline of both Barcelona and Spain with maximum efficiency and consistency. From Euro 2012, he will be missing.

There are question marks surrounding and engulfing Puyol's usual partner in defence, Gerard Pique. Of course, an accomplished player on the ball, Pique is a phenomenal talent. However, this has been arguably his worst season at the Nou Camp. His has been a season prone to lapse in concentration, and to uncharacteristic mental errors. When pressured, when scrutinized, when examined with an intensity so often lacking in regular La Liga games, Pique can be exploited.

Pique's year of inconsistency and devolving level of performance is almost a metaphor for a similar change in the fortunes of Barca and Spain. Whilst still remaining arguably the greatest team in the world, and whilst undeniably retaining their status as one of the defining teams of the current generation, Barcelona have, this season, failed to reach the heights of their absolutely incredulous, stupendous zenith of recent times. Increasingly, they have become reliant on the otherworldly talents of Lionel Messi more than ever. It took Messi to spawn an entirely new, unvisited dimension in the annals of the game, with an astonishing 73 goals, to merely keep Barcelona in immediate contention with Madrid. But Messi is not Spanish.

His Barcelona teammate, David Villa, too, provides fuel for worry ahead of the tournament. His will be an absence felt strongly and consistently at the Euro's. A broken tibia at the Club World Cup in Yokohama has wiped out any hope of Villa striding afield out East. Shorn of their all-time leading goalscorer and the most eminently recognizable symbol of Iberian football, Spain face something of a headache as to the destination of the central striking berth. Can Fernando Llorente be trusted with so little competitve International experience? After a rigorous, demanding and ultimately heart-breaking season with Atletic Bilbao, can he handle the responsibility? As for Del Bosque's other options atop the field, he harbours a Fernando Torres so routinely perplexing and inconsistent at Chelsea, and  a Roberto Soldado who would appear somewhat anachronistic in the tiki-taka system of play. Even this beguiling Spanish generation, it would appear, are not immune from the rigours of International decision-making.

A further reason why punters should be wary of placing exuberant amounts of money on Spain to lift the trophy in July out of sheer absent-mindedness is because of the inconsistent and poor friendly results which have become evident over the last twelve months. Defeats by England in London, Italy in Bari and a thumbing by Argentina in Buenos Aires have blotched Del Bosque's copybook in recent games. Thus, it would be wholly unwise to cast, in ones mind, Spain as the only serious contender for this Championship, once so evidently in command of such information.

If such results and discrepancies haven't tainted the Spanish silhouette as a machine of footballing brilliance, they have, at the very least, encouraged whisperings of discomfort and meanderings of disquiet in the media. It is clear that Spain, in a similar manner to Barcelona, have fallen, ever so slightly, from that awe-inspiring level of 2008-2010. Thus, they become more vulnerable, out of pure nature. Further, for the first time in recent tournaments, the Spanish are aware of a nation similarly equipped with dynamism and diversity; the Germans are inducing suspicions and nerves all over Europe, not least in Spain.

Of course, Spain's is still a team awash with talent, awash with legends, awash with true immortals the like of which will rarely grace the game again. Of course, they still have in goal Casillas, in midfield Xavi and Iniesta, have on the bench Fabregas and Silva. Of course, they, directed and orchestrated by Vicente Del Bosque, may very well prove once again to be the real deal this summer. However, theirs should not be a lone standing as favourites and contenders for the crown; other teams are, perhaps more than ever in this era of relative Spanish dominance, ready to pounce. Therefore, in times of prognostication, we should be cautious. For Spain to and crack the pattern and narrative of history and transform into the first national side ever to win three consecutive tournaments will take much more effort and endeavor than is sometimes suggested.  

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