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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition