Marathon men: Are Spain running out of puff?

They have every right to be exhausted after four taxing years of almost non-stop action but the chance to claim a unique treble is spurring them on

When history beckons even the tired come running: this summer, Spain can become the first team to win three back-to-back tournaments and, although fatigue and the absence of arguably their two most important players count against them, the benefits of picking a team from the two best club sides in the world and the incentive of being the first to do the "impossible treble" mean they remain the team to beat.

The marathon journey for these players began at the 2008 Euros, which they won, the following summer they reached the semi-finals of the Confederations Cup in South Africa with a full-strength squad and then two years later they went all the way in the World Cup. That left 2011 as a summer off but the Barcelona players hardly rested as pre-season was replaced by an arduous, whistle-stop tour of the United States.

But it was being found out as opposed to burnout that was on the players' minds yesterday. Ahead of tonight's penultimate friendly against South Korea (they play Jose Camacho's China on Sunday before landing in Gdansk on 5 June) Xabi Alonso spoke of it being "more difficult to retain the title this time than it was to win it the first time". And Iker Casillas added: "In 2008 when we won we were the surprise package. Now teams know how we play."

The preoccupation is as much over-exposure as exhaustion – a fear that teams have caught on to the way they play and so now know the best way to stop them. Not that knowing how Spain would play enabled anyone to stop them in 2010.

The German coach, Joachim Löw, whose side are best placed to take advantage of any slip, is certainly not buying the exhaustion theory. "We heard the same ahead of the South Africa World Cup," he said.

And he still has Spain as favourites: "Not just because they won the last European Championship and the World Cup, but because the squad is essentially made up of two club sides – Real Madrid and Barcelona."

Real's manager, Jose Mourinho, makes the same point. "It is a great advantage," he said. "Germany takes the core of its team from one club – Bayern Munich – but the other countries don't have it; not England; not Portugal, who have their players separated in many teams. Spain has these two groups of players who know each other very well. Will they win it? I don't know; but they have the best squad."

Madrid will supply four of Vicente del Bosque's starters on 10 June against Italy. Four Barcelona players will join them, along with the Valencia left-back Jordi Alba, Manchester City's David Silva, and whichever striker gets the nod from Seville's Alvaro Negredo, Chelsea's Fernando Torres and Athletic Bilbao's Fernando Llorente.

Over half of Del Bosque's squad come from Real Madrid or Barcelona and the fact that there was no clasico Champions League final in Munich gave those players a physical and emotional break – one that the statistics for games played this season (see team graphic) show they needed.

Not everyone has had the season slog suggested by the figures. Some Spain players actually started fewer league games than their English counterparts. Pedro made just 20 league starts and looked finally to have found full fitness in Barcelona's end-of-season Spanish Cup final win over Athletic Bilbao. Gerard Pique started only 17 league games and also looked fresh in the final. For England, Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney with 31 and 32 league starts respectively, had harder domestic campaigns. Fernando Torres admitted on Monday that his load has been relatively light. Like Pique and Pedro, he will have a big part to play in Poland and Ukraine.

Those for whom the burden of games has been heaviest – Alonso, Sergio Ramos and Xavi – also have the greatest motivation. As important players in 2008 and 2010 they will lay greatest claim to the "record-breakers" tag should Spain do what the West German side of 1976 came within a penalty shoot-out of achieving and win two European Championships either side of a World Cup.

Carles Puyol and David Villa would have shared the acclaim. They will be sorely missed and such is the enormity of replacing Villa – a man who has scored 51 goals in 82 games for his country – there are four alternatives under consideration to replace him.

History says it should be Torres. He scored the goal in 2008 that gave Spain their first trophy of the modern era and he will start tonight's friendly. He has 27 goals in 91 games for his country and he has the pace that sets defenders back on their heels and opens up space for Spain's midfield. Or at least he used to. In such a stop-start season it's been hard to gauge whether he still has the explosive acceleration that once made him such a force.

Llorente scored 29 goals in 48 games this season for Athletic Bilbao and could yet start the tournament ahead of Torres. Casillas's theory that Spain may have been found out is partly based on the way Barcelona were nullified in the Champions League. Llorente is the big centre-forward Barça don't have and offers Spain a plan B.

Much will depend on his state of mind, though after hugely disappointing performances in the Europa League and Spanish Cup finals. Del Bosque will hope those no-shows had more to do with the fatigue of his Athletic Bilbao team-mates than Llorente's own loss of confidence.

Option three is Alvaro Negredo. He does not have the pace or the goals tally of this season's top Spanish scorer, the omitted Roberto Soldado, but his link play is better and, like Llorente, he is strong in the air.

The final option for Del Bosque will be to play with no centre-forward at all, though copying a page straight out of the Barcelona textbook would have to work well lest he be savaged by the sizeable Madrid-leaning contingent among La Roja's support base. David Silva and Cesc Fabregas would share centre-forward duties from midfield if such a tactical gamble were taken by Del Bosque.

Replacing Puyol looks far more straightforward, with Sergio Ramos bringing all the Barcelona defender's athleticism to the centre of Spain's defence and the goals from set pieces so often crucial when there is no way through in open play. But the communication between Pique and Puyol – honed day in, day out at Barcelona – cannot be reproduced, and moving Ramos to centre-back leaves a hole at right-back.

Atletico's converted winger Juan Fran made his international debut at the weekend and is one possibility. Del Bosque already has a converted winger on the other flank of his defence in Alba and may prefer Real's Alvaro Arbeloa instead. Finding the balance between caution and creation and picking Villa's replacement will test Del Bosque – a coach who commands the respect of all of Spain but, as a club manager at Real Madrid, never had to flex his tactical muscles overly in managing a team that more or less picked itself.

His decision-making was vital in 2010 and will be even more so this time. Mourinho has no doubt he is perfect for the job. "He knows football and he knows how to manage people in a calm and balanced way," he said.

The famous calm that the 61-year-old bestows on proceedings has already been in evidence. Asked about potential burnout on Sunday, he said: "The players have had an intense season but the modern footballer is an athlete. And the legs move better when there is a big incentive in the head."

It was his way of saying: "When you know you can become the first team ever to win two European Championships and a World Cup in four years, you don't feel tired." Motivation becomes the master of fatigue.

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