Posted on May 12
Spain head to Euro 2012 looking to make history but their bid for a third consecutive major tournament triumph could be hit by fatigue, with top players feeling the effects of several years competing at the highest level.
Spain were the big underachievers of the European game before their triumph at Euro 2008 but having since gone on to win the 2010 World Cup they will be the team to beat in Poland and Ukraine.
No team has ever retained the Henri Delaunay trophy or won three major tournaments on the bounce, even if West Germany came close, losing the 1976 European Championship to Czechoslovakia after previously winning the 1972 Euros and the 1974 World Cup.
There are plenty of reasons why Vicente Del Bosque's side can hope to go all the way this year, though, especially as their leading players know each other inside out and are not lacking in experience.
They also cruised through qualifying, winning all eight games and scoring 26 goals in the process.
"The entire team know that as the reigning European champions the heavy weight of responsibility lies on our shoulders," Del Bosque said recently.
"But everyone in the team wants to defend our current position in world football even if this task looks tricky. We can be proud of what we have achieved but it belongs in the past and now we need to focus on the future."
However, Del Bosque must solve some major problems if La Roja are to really compete with the youthful exuberance of Germany and the class of the Netherlands, among others.
Chief among those is the fatigue, both physical and mental, which has accumulated over the years of success.
Barcelona's Xavi Hernandez is the man that makes the team tick but he has played an average of almost 70 games a season in the last four years and is being gradually worn down by tendon problems.
And Xavi is far from the only one to have clocked up the kilometres in recent years with little or no rest.
Furthermore, many of Del Bosque's squad will come from Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao, the two clubs who meet in the final of the Copa del Rey on May 25, just 16 days before La Roja's opening game against Italy.
That means Del Bosque will be the last coach to have his whole group of players at his disposal ahead of the tournament.
To compound matters, he has also had to deal with the loss of key players to injury.
Inspirational captain Carles Puyol -- a man who "rouses every player that sees him" in the words of one teammate -- is out of the tournament with a knee problem.
Meanwhile, the national team's all-time leading goal-scorer David Villa -- scorer of seven goals in qualifying and five in the World Cup finals in South Africa -- has not played at all since breaking a leg in December.
With Fernando Torres still grasping for a semblance of form, Roberto Soldado and Fernando Llorente could be key in attack, while Sergio Ramos is likely to assume Puyol's role in the heart of the defence.
Despite everything, Xavi hopes the momentum built up in recent years can work to Spain's advantage as they prepare to do battle in Group C against Italy, the Republic of Ireland and Croatia.
"Having a winners' mentality, having just won the World Cup, and the whole world believing in us, that's the big difference," says the 32-year-old.
Spain's place in the pantheon of great sides is already assured. Lift the Henri Delaunay trophy in Kiev on July 1, and they could consider themselves the greatest ever.
But it remains to be seen if they have the legs.