On paper, this team is stacked. There’s no other, more profound way to put it. Player for player, Spain is loaded and may have the most individual talent in this tournament.
The key for coach Luis Aragonés is to mold that talent into a TEAM that can really make a deep run. That will be no easy feat; despite the quality of players Spain has produced over the years, they’ve won only one senior international tournament — the 1964 European Championship, which they hosted. It’s been one disappointing exit after another since then. In Euro 2004, La Furia Roja didn’t even make it out of the group stage and at the World Cup two years later, they lost in the Round of 16 with largely the same core of players that will be on the field this June. Like England, Spain is a perennial underachiever, but unlike the Three Lions, Spain has a chance to at least partially wipe out that stigma in this competition.
Spain qualified with relative ease, as their only stiff competition was fellow Group D contender Sweden. Aragonés’ men split their two meetings with Sweden, with both teams winning on their respective home fields, but were able to gain two more points against the rest of the teams in the group.
Depending on who you listen to, Spain has the world’s best goalkeeper between the sticks in Real Madrid’s Iker Casillas, who has been his country’s first choice in net since World Cup 2002. His only Madrid teammate on the Spanish roster, Sergio Ramos, will be at right back and is another guy who is one of the best players in the world at his position. Carles Puyol, though without much technical skill and ability, is an inspirational leader in the center of defense and works as hard as anyone. Joining Puyol in the center will be Valencia’s Carlos Marchena. At left back, Joan Capdevila had a terrific season for Villarreal and will likely get the nod over Fernando Navarro. All in all, the back line (aside from Ramos) is the weak link of the Spanish team, and can be exploited in the middle and on Capdevila’s side by quick, pacey teams who play through balls for that speed to run on to.
Xabi Alonso is a very good bet to start ahead of Marcos Senna and sit right above the back four, where the former’s wonderful long-range passing ability is perfectly suited. Ahead of him will be the more attack-minded Cesc Fàbregas and Xavi, no slouches at passing themselves. A lack of quality wingers (and depth in those positions) in the Spanish game right now has forced Aragonés’ hand; he has to play three central midfielders and rely on his full-backs to give the team width, but that limits their ability to help cover ground that Spain’s slow-footed center backs can’t get to.
Up top, Liverpool’s Fernando Torres will lead a deadly, three-pronged front line, flanked on the right by David Silva and on the left by Andrés Iniesta, who is used to playing in that role for Barcelona.
One thing is for certain, Spain has the capability and the players to score goals, but I’m not sure how reliable their back line is. They have a top-notch goalkeeper in Casillas, but even he can’t stop everything if his defense puts him in too many tough spots. That offensive ability alone should be enough to get them out of the group stage, but once the big boys come around, Spain’s weaknesses in the back can be taken advantage of.
Wrapping up the Group D preview we have Sweden, a nation, like its Scandinavian neighbors, for whom soccer is by far the secondary sport. As a result of that, Sweden has never really earned a place at the “big kids table” with the likes of traditional soccer-crazed countries, despite the fact that they’ve reached a World Cup final and finished third in 1994, a Euro semifinal, and have made consistent, significant strides forward in recent years.
Sweden’s coach, Lars Lagerbäck, has been at the helm since 2000 (as “joint-coach” from 2000 until after Euro 2004) and is the longest-tenured of his peers at this tournament. Under his tenure, Sweden has qualified for five straight major international tournaments, something that had never been done before in the history of Swedish soccer.
He has an experienced team, one that is probably at the very peak of its livelihood. Most of the players on the roster are at the point in their careers where regression, rather than development, will be expected in the future and if Sweden doesn’t put a nice run together in this tournament or in World Cup 2010, which is less likely because it’s two more years of age on this current crop of players, a period of growing pains could result.
In goal will be Andreas Isaksson, who was out of favor at Manchester City this year under fellow Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson. Fredrik Stoor will be at right back, with Olof Mellberg moving to the center after playing on the right for Aston Villa this season. Alongside Mellberg, Daniel Majstorovi? should see off the challenge of Andreas Granqvist and get the starting nod, and the versatile Mikael Nilsson will be on the left.
Tobias Linderoth was a major concern due to injury heading into the final roster cut-down date, but Lars Lagerbäck obviously had his worries eased through encouraging reports because Linderoth was included. He’ll sit right above the back four in a holding role, with Christian Wilhelmsson ahead of him on the right wing, Freddie Ljungberg, the captain, on the left, and either Anders Svensson (more experienced, better on dead balls) or Kim Källström (younger, more of a playmaker with his passing ability, and can whip balls in from open play) in the middle.
Henrik Larsson, stive alive and kicking (or scoring, in this case) at the age of 36, will provide that ounce of subtlety, creativity, and quality in the area than his more straightforward, powerful strike partner, Zlatan Ibrahimovi?, who has an attitude nearly as bad as that of Antonio Cassano, but that same ability to score goals at will when his mind is right and has come up with a few peaches in his day. Together, the two are a lethal duo up front and will put a few goals in the back of the net for Sweden.
Sweden will look at their games against Greece and Russia as necessary victories, because while Greece has the discipline and Russia has the coaching and work rate to take points from Spain, Sweden is above-average in all categories and doesn’t do one particular thing well enough to overcome superior talent. Taking six points from those two teams would be enough to go through, so that will be their main focus.
Group D Final Prediction (teams in bold advance):
1. Spain — 7 points
2. Russia — 5 points
3. Sweden — 4 points
4. Greece — 0 points