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Spanish stars at risk of burning out

Xavi was exasperated.

"What did people think," the midfielder asked. "That we were going to win every game 3-0? I can't believe what I am hearing sometimes. Do you not realise how hard it is? Teams aren't stupid. We're European champions, they all pressure us like wolves. There isn't a single metre, not a second on the pitch. Always 10 men behind the ball putting pressure on."

It's a quote that could well have come in the last 10 days. But it didn't. It came two years ago before the World Cup final. And it's perhaps a timely reminder of just how long Spain's Barcelona-based players have been chasing history on all fronts... not to mention how far-reaching the effects of fatigue and pressure - both physical and mental - may well be.

Take the somewhat unfair expectations on, and revisionism of, this Barcelona team's legacy because they failed to retain the Champions League. On some levels, of course, it's a pity that a side this game-changing didn't achieve European football's gold-standard feat. It's also arguably a wasted opportunity.

But that overlooks the fact they have dominated all of their competitions to a greater degree than any other team in the last three decades. Indeed, no side since Liverpool of the early '80s has got so far, so often in so many different events. Not even Arrigo Sacchi's Milan.

Over four seasons, that Italian side only (an admittedly relative term) won two European Cups and a solitary Serie A. Either side of those victories, meanwhile, they were eliminated from the 1987-88 UEFA Cup in the second round and the 1990-91 champions' competition in the quarter-finals.

By contrast, across the same number of years, Barca have won two Champions Leagues, three Spanish championships, one Copa Del Rey and reached another two finals in the domestic cup as well as two further continental semi-finals. It's an exceptionally emphatic record. But, on the brink of genuine history, there was only escalating pressure to make it the ultimate record. And it was that which eventually pushed Pep Guardiola out of Camp Nou.

For the manager, at least though, that pressure stopped at club football. That hasn't been the case for the vast majority of his players.

Indeed, for the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carlos Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and - to a lesser extent - David Villa and Pedro, it is an all too familiar feeling on all fronts. And one that is about to recur.

In 2010, for example, there was a rare opportunity for a wondrous squad to become only the third side to add the World Cup to the European Championship, while also lifting their country's first global title.

This summer, then, there's an even rarer chance to become the first ever team to win three major international trophies in a row.

The only problem is, there just mightn't be the legs. For the Barca players, after all, most of their close-seasons have been as intense as the main seasons.

And that's an important point when it comes to all of the greatest sides. Only one other club team and one other international team have crossed over in such a way: Bayern Munich 1971-76 and West Germany 1972-76.

By contrast, Real Madrid dominated Europe in the late '50s without any true international distractions; Spain didn't even qualify for the 1958 World Cup. The exceptional eras of Liverpool 1975-84 and Benfica 1960-62, meanwhile, coincided with dreadful spells for their nations. Portugal, for example, only saw the benefit of Benfica's success four years later. Similarly, Netherlands' 1974 World Cup came after the great Ajax side had disbanded.

Even with the French team that won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, most of their players were scattered around Europe. But the effects of the newly expanded Champions League still exhausted them to the point of a first-round exit in the summer of 2002.

So what, then, of West Germany? Well, of course, they came closer to completing the impossible treble than anyone else as they reached the final of Euro 76 only to be beaten by Czechoslovakia on penalties.

But something had to give somewhere. And, with six Bayern players having started the 1974 World Cup final, that break came in the club's 1974-75 domestic season. Yes, unlike Barcelona, they might have retained the European Cup. But, also unlike Barcelona, they finished in the bottom half of the Bundesliga - 10th.

Brian Glanville described them at the time as a "tired, weary team... too many hard games for club and country."Midfielder Franz Roth, meanwhile, explains that "it was perhaps inevitable we would suffer the following season. It was hard to carry on after such a high."

The question now is whether the opposite will happen for the core of the Spanish side. During midweek, former Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness argued that nothing energises the body and mind like victory. But Barca lost. Two competitions. And their players now have to go and play under arguably greater pressure. And with many more miles on the clock.

A further factor Bayern complained about in the 70s was that, because they were so successful, they were in demand to play a series of energy-sapping exhibition games. The same has happened to Spain.

Since 2010, the world champions have played a scarcely believable 29 games. And a fair few of them have been money-spinning friendlies in distant destinations like Costa Rica and Mexico.

The total effect of all that can, to a certain degree, be totted up.

Since the start of Euro 2008, the core squad (ie, the five to seven key players) of each of the main Euro 2012 favourites have played, on average, the following number of games per year: Spain 58 England 56 France 49 Portugal 47 Germany 46 Italy 45 Netherlands 44 Over four years, that's a lot more than just a few matches.

And, as expected, Xavi is the most extreme example. Since Spain sliced Russia apart to win 4-1 and begin their current span of success in Innsbruck in June 2008, the philosophy-defining midfielder has played an average of 66 games a year - six more than anyone else likely to be at the championship in Ukraine and Poland.

Little wonder he hasn't looked himself over the last few weeks. Little wonder, either, that Guardiola has been withdrawing him so early in games. Such a run is simply unsustainable.

A further problem is that such prolonged success doesn't just have a mental and physical effect: it conditions how opposing teams approach you. Because, while an aura has been created around Barca and Spain, it has also resulted in an exaggerated - if understandable - response. Teams defend against them in a more extreme manner than against any other opposition: with massed ranks.

It was this that Xavi was referring to when he spoke of "not a single metre on the pitch". Back then, in 2010, Inter's semi-final victory over Barcelona effectively set the template for Spain's games in the World Cup. This summer, Chelsea's might do the same in the Euros. But, while Inter's win was seen as something of a last, desperate measure against a dominant team, Chelsea's might further fortify the belief of opposition teams while eroding that of the Barcelona players. It isn't difficult to imagine both Italy and Giovanni Trapattoni's Ireland withdrawing to extreme degrees when they face Spain in the group stage.

Of course, it remains true that Spain enjoy an infrastructure that makes them more of an effective 'club team' team than any other side except the Germans. But such major trends are still dependent on minor details - like fatigue, complacency, fractiousness.

This summer, Xavi may not just be exasperated. He may well be exhausted.

Miguel Delaney is the owner of Football Pantheon and can be followed on @migueldelaney

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