©AP, Jun 06, 2012

Spain bids to defend European title

With David Villa's health a question mark and Fernando Torres' form also in doubt, Spain's attack may need a Plan B in its quest to win a third straight major international title at this year's European Championship.

Torres is expected to be included in coach Vicente del Bosque's 23-man squad on May 27, but Villa's chances are slim because the Barcelona striker hasn't played since December.

Del Bosque told The Associated Press he would be hard-pressed to take Villa to Poland and Ukraine unless he got an official game in. The Spain coach has even delayed his squad announcement to give the country's all-time leading scorer a chance to play in the Copa del Rey final two days before his team is named.

''Everything depends on what the players and the doctors say. If he doesn't play it's going to be more difficult to include him in the squad,'' Del Bosque said. ''It's not a short-term injury. It's a serious injury so we have to be sure he's in good shape.''

Perhaps no pair of strikers have meant more to a national team in recent years than Villa and Torres.

Villa led Euro 2008 scoring, with Torres getting the winner against Germany in the final four years ago. Villa was then joint top scorer at the World Cup with five goals as Spain won again.

© AP Images

Torres' dip and Villa's uncertainty has placed further pressure on Spain's talented midfield to overcome the fatigue of another long and grueling season when it opens Group C play against Italy on June 10.

Barcelona forward Pedro Rodriguez's dwindling playing time has also seen the World Cup winner's chances dip as Del Bosque has introduced young talent into the team such as Thiago Alcantara, Iker Muniain and Jordi Alba.

''This season has been marked by injuries and fatigue,'' Del Bosque said. ''But we can't look for excuses. We have to focus on how we can best prepare in the days before the tournament, what the players need to be fed, how much rest they need, how can we make sure we get to the tournament in the best shape.''

Spain will be without veteran defender Carles Puyol because of right knee surgery, while Barcelona teammate Xavi Hernandez has also been hampered by injuries over the second half of a disappointing season for his club.

Puyol's absence - his first at a major championship since he played at the 2002 World Cup - means Barcelona teammate Gerard Pique and Madrid defender Sergio Ramos will likely anchor the defense. The left fullback position seems to be a question mark, with Alvaro Arbeloa and Alba the strongest candidates.

''For everyone this is a weird situation, so whether it affects us or not, the results will tell,'' Spain captain Iker Casillas said. ''If we go deep into the tournament nobody will remember it but if we falter in the first round then it will be talked about. The problem now is that we are not an unknown quantity, everyone wants to go out and beat Spain.''

Xavi and Barcelona teammates Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets and Thiago lead a midfield that also includes David Silva, Xabi Alonso and Santi Cazorla.

Spain was perfect in qualifying and has won 33 of its 36 competitive games since the Euro 2008 triumph, with only two losses.

''We believe we have a great generation of players,'' Xavi said. ''The whole world is keeping an eye on the team and there is a certain pressure, but a good one.''

No team is deeper at goalkeeper than Spain, with Casillas set to start his sixth major championship. Behind him, Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina are ready to fill in.

That leaves just the attack under the spotlight.

The only certainty is that Athletic Bilbao striker Fernando Llorente will be in the team. Roberto Soldado seemed to have won a place after scoring a hat trick in a friendly in February, but the Valencia striker's form has dipped since. Sevilla striker Alvaro Negredo has always succeeded with Spain - scoring five goals in seven appearances - but his irregular club form hasn't helped his standing.

So while no Spanish striker has scored as much as Llorente this season, Del Bosque signaled he won't alter his strategy to fit his most productive player.

''No player is negative to our way of playing. We have to stay true to our style of playing and I think (Llorente) has shown before he can play our game,'' Del Bosque said of the lanky Basque striker, who made an impact in his lone appearance at the World Cup in the victory over Portugal.

Del Bosque sees World Cup finalist Netherlands and Euro 2008 runner-up Germany as Spain's toughest competition, while not dismissing England, France and Portugal.

But the 61-year-old former Real Madrid coach, who can be placed among the all-time greats by securing his first European title on his first try, is also reminding his players to remain concentrated on group play first. Besides Italy, Spain will face Ireland on June 14 and Croatia four days later.

''We can't look at it like it's an easy group. Each team has its own characteristics,'' Del Bosque said. ''These are three teams with qualities we have to be prepared for.''


Paul Logothetis can be reached at: www.twitter.com/PaulLogoAP

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