Spain

Road to the finals

After yet another disappointing performance in the 2006 World Cup, perennial underachievers Spain qualified with relative ease. However, it was not without one or two scares on the way.

This was not altogether surprising, as Spain contested arguably the most difficult qualification group. Alongside fellow qualifiers Sweden, a host of tricky sides had to be negotiated, including Denmark, Northern Ireland, Iceland and Latvia, with Liechtenstein making up the numbers. Nevertheless, the Spanish were the stand-out side, with players of the ability of Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Ramos, David Villa and Fernando Torres.

Unfortunately, the World Cup hangover plagued the early stages of La Seleccion’s campaign. Although Liechtenstein were put to the sword in emphatic fashion in Badajoz by four goals, they then succumbed in surprising fashion to Northern Ireland in Belfast, courtesy of an exceptional David Healy hat-trick. Their miserable form continued in the next round of fixtures as, coming up against the ever-impressive Swedish in Solna, they fell to a 2-0 defeat and the pressure was firmly on coach Luis Aragones.

Another difficult fixture followed against the Danish in Mallorca, but this time the Spanish came out on top thanks to the heroics of veteran Fernando Morientes and Villa. Thus began a great run of form which would see them into the finals. A late goal from Andres Iniesta secured a 1-0 victory against Iceland, which was followed by a 2-0 win at the expense of Latvia in Riga. David Villa, who had scored in each of the last two games was again the difference against Liechtenstein, providing both the goals in Spain’s 2-0 triumph. Although they then had to settle for a 1-1 draw at home against Iceland, an outstanding performance against Denmark in Copenhagen produced a 3-1 win and put them on course to win the group.

Their spot at the finals in Austria and Switzerland was secured at the first opportunity and, in the process, revenge was exacted against Sweden, who were thumped 3-0 in Las Palmas. A solitary goal from Barcelona’s Xavi rounded off the qualification process, ensuring Spain would qualify in style as group winners.

Manager

Controversial, frustrating, but at times brilliant, Luis Aragones is the doyen of Spanish football. Having started his career as a professional in 1957, he has been a part of the game for over 50 years now and rarely has he been out of the headlines.

Although he began his career with Getafe, he made his name as a player with Atletico Madrid. Over the course of a decade, the striker was one of the club’s outstanding performers, scoring 123 goals in 265 appearances, picking up three La Liga titles and receiving all of his 11 international caps with the Madrid side. Aragones continued his tenure with Atletico after retiring as a player in 1974, taking over as the manager.

His six years in this new role were no less successful, as Atletico picked up another La Liga title in 1977, as well as lifting the Copa del Rey no fewer than three times. Aragones then spent a year with Real Betis but, when this did not work out, again found himself back at Atletico. Indeed, Madrid would prove to be the eternal fall-back for the so-called Wise Man of Hortaleza, returning there in 1991 and 2002, having spent periods with Barcelona, Sevilla, Valencia, Espanyol, Real Oviedo and Mallorca.

Aragones took up his role with the Spanish side in 2004 and was charged with breaking the eternal hoodoo which has plagued La Seleccion in major competitions. Sadly, he is yet to meet the expectations of the long-suffering populace, but Euro 2008 could change all that and cap a truly remarkable career in football.

Three to watch

Fernando Torres

An obvious choice but one which has to be made. El Nino is one of the finest players Spain has produced in the past few decades and, although just 24 years of age, already looks a world-beater. Having made his debut with his beloved Atletico Madrid at the age of just 17, Torres’ contribution to the red and white was nothing short of phenomenal. Season upon season of underachievement did nothing to damage Torres’ commitment, and his record of 82 goals in 214 appearances does not reflect the true worth of the starlet.

Liverpool’s valuation of him, on the other hand, certainly attests to his status in world football. Shelling out £20 million for his services, Liverpool were looking for a star striker and they certainly got one. Since arriving, Torres has endeared himself to the Anfield faithful, banging in a remarkable 32 goals in 2007/2008. As such, he is arguably the form striker going into Euro 2008 and all eyes will be on him when Spain first take to the field.

Raul Gonzalez

The heartbeat of Real Madrid for so many years, Raul has recently returned to the national team fold after a prolonged period in the wilderness. A genuine legend for the Merengues, having scored well over 200 goals in 14 years (and counting), he has also been a stalwart of La Seleccion, with a century of caps to his name – and he’s still in his early 30s!

After Spain’s most recent failure in the World Cup, Raul was sacrificed in favour of youth by Luis Aragones, encouraged by a prolonged decline in his form. However, after a phenomenal season for Madrid in which he scored well over 20 goals, the calls for his return were overwhelming. Look out for him to prove his worth yet again in Austria and Switzerland.

Sergio Ramos

Another Real Madrid man, Sergio Ramos is already an experienced international while still in his early 20s. Having signed for 27 million euros from hometown club Sevilla, Ramos has established himself as one of the best defenders in the business, both in central defence and at right-back.

However, befitting his ability, Ramos’ worth cannot be measured purely in defensive work. As reflected during the 2007/2008 season, he is a potent threat up front in set-pieces and down the flanks when playing at right-back. Indeed, during his three seasons with Madrid thus far, he has already scored 14 times for Los Merengues – not a bad achievement for a centre-back. Look out for him to make a big impression in the finals.

Win or lose?

Despite Spain’s dreadful record in major tournaments, the bookies still fear this could be their year. As such, the odds on a victory at Euro 2008 are relatively short, with Ladbrokes quoting them at 6/1, William Hill opting for 11/2 and 888 Sport going for 13/2.