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Jun 12, 2009

Have Spain found their winning formula?

Last summer I started writing as an amateur correspondent for Soccernet, covering the mighty Spain during Euro 2008. One of my first pieces was called ''Spain's most painful defeats''; it depicted our top (as in ''most heartbreaking'') five failures in the international scene.

Just like the experience of us Spaniards too young to remember our European Championship victory in 1964, the column distilled frustration and bitterness because of our seemingly perennial underachievement.

One year, one European Champions title and 32 undefeated matches later, all those years of disappointment seem like a bad nightmare. Opposing teams take pictures with our players as though they were rock stars, like Azerbaijan did at the end of their friendly match against Spain last Tuesday. Our coach Vicente del Bosque openly states that ''our aim is to win every single match''. Jon Carter declares us favourites in his Confederations Cup preview.

Is this a change for good? Are we here to stay? Can we really get rid of the ''Armada'' nickname? Spain begin their participation in the Confederations Cup on Sunday. The tournament should help us to clarify whether our streak is just a slightly extended version of Greece's Euro 2004 victory, or if we have finally managed to find our own winning formula.

Barring some shocking relapse into our old ways, Spain should be barely tested in the initial group phase. Our opening match is against Oceania champions New Zealand. The next rivals are Iraq and finally the host South Africa, which, with all due respect, makes up the easiest qualification group of any competition Spain has ever been a part of, narrowly edging the 1982 World Cup (Honduras, Northern Ireland and the weakest Yugoslavian squad ever were our opponents then).

The other group has Brazil, Italy, USA and Egypt contending to qualify for the semi-finals, so we can consider ourselves lucky.

Given the limitations of our rivals, during that first round Spain's biggest enemies will sleep inside their own camp. The silly season has kicked-off in Spain thanks to Florentino Perez's reckless comeback, so the destination of several Spanish squad players will be discussed endlessly in the following days, diverting attention from the team and the competition.

The exhaustion of the Barcelona contingent, who played every possible match in every possible competition this season, could also have an impact on the performance of the side.

Finally, Del Bosque will have to replace two of his most consistent players, Marcos Senna and Andrés Iniesta, out injured, even though that hardly seems a challenge given the impressive abundance of capable midfielders in the squad. Let's just remember both Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fábregas were on the bench last summer in Austria.

The real work for Spain should start in the semi-finals. If everything goes according to script, the Spaniards will have to face either five times World Champions Brazil, or four times World Champions Italy.

The former side are finally leading the South American classification group for the 2010 World Cup, after a troubled few months in which Brazilian gaffer Dunga had to suffer strong criticism due to his conservative tactics.

Uncharacteristically, the current Brazilian team is built from back to front. A goalkeeper in fantastic form, Julio César, and two splendid centre backs (Lúcio and Juan) give a great defensive discipline to the squad.

Despite their arsenal of bright players, they have more difficulties in the creative side of things, but in any case the Brazilians are always fierce competitors. They also have a way of getting all the calls when they play against Spain, ever since that botched penalty call in the 1962 Chilean Cup (yes, I hold grudges from things that happened even before I was born).

And speaking about grudges, current World Champions Italy are the other team that can realistically get in the way of our Confederations Cup glory. Most Spaniards will tell you that our penalty shootout victory last June meant as much to them as our country winning the final.

That might be an overstatement inherited from our long, traumatic underachieving spell, but it is a fact that the whole nation was overwhelmed with something more than relief when Fábregas scored that last penalty, as we hadn't beaten the azzurri since 1920.

Gaffer Marcello Lippi is back, his main challenge being to get the 2006 spirit back into this squad. Their defence looked surprisingly careless in their last friendly against New Zealand, but just like the Brazilians, Italians know how to raise their level on the big stage.

Spain's strengths to face such a serious pair of legendary squads are well known by now. An amazing set of midfield players (Xavi Hernández, David Silva, Xabi Alonso, etc.) combine to create space and plenty of chances for two top-level strikers (Fernando Torres and David Villa).

The (for the time being) Valencia player will very likely surpass Fernando Hierro as the second most prolific scorer in the history of the Spanish national team in this tournament. After that, he will only have Raúl González, his probable dressing room colleague next year, ahead.

Similar to Barcelona, Spain can keep possession effortlessly and have learnt to take calculated risks without giving the match away, which is probably one of the main differences in attitude between the old and the new version of the Spanish national team.

Our weaknesses are also public. Despite a rather impressive display at Euro 2008, our defence have some issues defending set pieces, and our fullbacks are far from being 100% trustworthy. So far, Vicente del Bosque has been able to hide these inconsistencies as well as Luis Aragonés managed to last summer, through ball possession and constant midfield help. We'll see if they can keep it up for another five matches.

The tournament will be a test of our brand new capacity to compete internationally as much as of South Africa's capabilities to organise next year's World Cup. I'll be there to let you know every detail about the competition and all the news and gossips from the Spanish camp. Stay tuned.

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