Spain are bidding to win a third consecutive European Championship but a difficult draw awaits a team whose coach Vicente del Bosque admits are in transition.
The 2008 and 2012 champions are looking to avoid a repeat of their disastrous showing at the World Cup in Brazil two years ago and they come up against Croatia, Turkey and the Czech Republic in Group D.
“We go there with the maximum objective. And that is to defend the title we won four years ago,” Del Bosque told sports daily Marca before La Roja departed for their base camp on the delightful Ile de Re off France’s Atlantic coast.
“It is the same situation as in 2012, but with a bit more responsibility because we are defending two consecutive titles.
“But we must differentiate between what is an objective and what is an obligation. Winning the title cannot be an obligation.”
Del Bosque, 65, says that because his squad has changed significantly since 2012.
Perhaps six of those who played in the 4-0 final win against Italy in Kiev will start against the Czech Republic in Toulouse next Monday. But this could be the time for the likes of Koke, Alvaro Morata and Lucas Vazquez to shine.
“We need to make the most of the players we have,” Del Bosque said, signalling a possible move away from the ‘tiki-taka’ style of past tournaments.
“Lucas Vazquez has pace and can trouble defences, while you can’t argue with Aritz Aduriz’s statistics. If in three touches we manage to get to the opposition goal then that is also great.”
Finishing top of the group has to be the aim, with Belgium or Italy potential last-16 opponents for the Group D runners-up. If any team goes through in third France could lie in wait.
Spain will hope to have their last-16 berth sewn up before they face a dangerous Croatia side in Bordeaux in their last group match.
Strength in depth
Ante Cacic’s men represent a small nation but their strength in depth is impressive and Spain know all about Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and his fellow midfielder Ivan Rakitic, of Barcelona.
Mateo Kovacic of Real Madrid and Juventus centre-forward Mario Mandzukic are also involved for a side who arrive in France as dangerous dark horses, even if Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren will not feature.
“Our group is challenging. But, nevertheless, I believe that we can pass the first round, and then in the knockout stage everything depends on the opponent in front of us,” Cacic told World Soccer magazine.
“You need to have the best morale and harmony. We have those ingredients.”
The Czech Republic travel with an excellent past record in European Championships but a squad lacking the star quality of their rivals.
Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech, the country’s most-capped player, remains the biggest name at Pavel Vrba’s disposal. Veteran midfielder Tomas Rosicky, now 35, is still around despite hardly playing at club level for Arsenal in recent times.
The Euro 96 runners-up topped their qualifying group after beating the Netherlands home and away and defeating Turkey away. They will face the Turks again in their last Group D game in Lens, one that could prove decisive for both teams.
Turkey, under ‘Emperor’ Fatih Terim in his third stint as coach, recovered from a dreadful start in qualifying to advance as the best third-placed team.
Their squad contains plenty of young talent supplemented by Bayer Leverkusen’s Hakan Calhanoglu, a brilliant free-kick taker, and skipper Arda Turan of Barcelona.
“We have a young squad who wants to prove itself. And everybody knows hungry people are dangerous,” Turan told World Soccer. “Our coach tells us that if we fight, we can make a big surprise. I tell you, we’re going to fight!”