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.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
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

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?