Published 26/05/2016 at 13:09 GMT | Updated 10/06/2016 at 17:03 GMT
Spain do not quite have the allure of four years ago – that spell was broken when they were stunningly eliminated from the World Cup at the first hurdle – but champions are rarely more dangerous than when the odds are against them.
Most bookmakers only make the third-favourites to make win a third consecutive title, having already made history by retaining it, with advancing years and lack of form among some of Vicente del Bosque’s squad sewing seeds of doubt. Stodgy friendly draws with Italy and Romania in March did little to stoke the optimism, but when considering a side of this quality – and this habit of winning – you write them off at your peril.
Spain's Koke, Santi Cazorla and Sergio Busquets walk off the pitch at the end of their 2014 World Cup Group B soccer match against Chile at the Maracana stadium
Who will score the goals? Del Bosque was ruthless with his centre-forward selection for the tournament, leaving out Diego Costa and Paco Alcacer – their top scorer in qualifying – while electing not to pick a rejuvenated Fernando Torres. Alvaro Morata, the Juventus striker, is favourite to lead the line but his domestic season yielded only 12 goals and he has only notched once for Spain. He is the kind of tireless worker who will bring others into play, and Del Bosque has expressed his “great confidence” in the striker, but there is a feeling that Spain are now a little light on firepower.
The centre-forward debate will undoubtedly rumble on but things are reasonably stable otherwise, although troughs in club form have not always helped Del Bosque. Cesc Fabregas perked up along with most of his Chelsea team-mates towards the end of the season, but Pedro is unlikely to start after an underwhelming first Premier League campaign and David Silva’s subdued late-season performances at Manchester City came hand in hand with injury struggles. Further back, David De Gea has wrested the number one jersey from captain Iker Casillas after consistent excellence at Manchester United.
THE MANAGER: VICENTE DEL BOSQUE
Del Bosque intends to retire at the end of Euro 2016 and retaining the title his side won so convincingly four years ago looks one of the most difficult jobs of his eight-year tenure with La Roja.
“The semi-finals would make me happy,” he said as his squad convened ahead of the tournament, perhaps in a nod to the likely depth of quality when the latter stages come around but also as a means of taking pressure off his squad. The odd mind game is not implausible: Del Bosque has seen it all, and will be quietly confident in his own ability to sign off in style.
Vicente del Bosque - Spain's coach
Image credit: PA Sport
TOP THREE PLAYERS
David de Gea: The fact that De Gea had only won eight caps before May is testament to the career of Casillas, but that figure should rocket now. De Gea has razor-sharp reflexes, a much-improved command of his box and quick-thinking distribution, all combining to mean there are few better goalkeepers around.
Spain goalkeeper David De Gea
Image credit: AFP
Sergio Busquets: Busquets might go through his entire career without getting the recognition he deserves, but Barcelona’s midfield lynchpin – still just 27 – is the best at what he does and mixes steel with silk to set the platform for more creative players.
Andres Iniesta: Iniesta recently turned 32 but is as wonderful, beguiling a player as ever. A brilliant season for Barcelona sees him enter Euro 2016 in fine form and there is no evidence of any deterioration.
SOCIAL MEDIA STAR
If Morata is to take centre stage then it is probably worth keeping an eye on his Twitter account – particularly because he enjoys taking followers behind the scenes with live streams using Periscope.
JONATHAN WILSON’S KILLER KNOWLEDGE
The days of the strikerless 4-3-3 seem to have gone, with Vicente Del Bosque now preferring a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid. Busquets is likely to start as the deep-lying midfielder with Thiago Alcantara alongside him and Fabregas as the central creator. That means Iniesta pushed out to a left-sided role with Silva likely to operate on the right. Morata and Artiz Aduriz are both centre-forward options.
Ukraine's Denys Garmash (R) goes for a header with Spain's Cesc Fabregas during their Euro 2016 group C qualifying soccer match at the Olympic stadium in Kiev, Ukraine, October 12, 2015. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
Image credit: Reuters
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
An early jolt aside, it was a comfortable procession for Spain in a relatively untesting Group C. They were certainly not expected to lose 2-1 in Slovakia on the second matchday but that appeared to be the required wake-up call; Spain won the rest of their 10 games, scoring 23 times and keeping eight consecutive clean sheets after that shock in Zilina.
They were generally efficient rather than spectacular, and there was the odd scare in their 1-0 wins over Ukraine, but they finished five points clear of the Slovakians and were never in any danger of sweating on their place in France.
Spain's Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Juanfran Torres celebrate a goal during their Euro 2016 Group C qualification soccer match against Luxembourg