Euro 2008: Preview - Group D

The tag of perennial underachievers has haunted Spain since their 1964 European Championship triumph, but Luis Aragones' bright young squad could be about to curb that criticism when the 2008 version kicks off next week.

Often hyped as favourites pre-tournament, the Spanish usually find it difficult to deliver on the big occasion, but the current side are best-placed to emulate that success in Madrid 44 years ago.

They boast a midfield stacked with creativity, a goalkeeper to rival the best on the continent and one of the hottest strikers in the world on current form. The trick, as so many national managers have found out to their cost, is making the team better than the sum of its parts.

Three points from their first three qualifying games led many to believe that La Roja's star-studded cast were about to follow past acts and falter just as the curtain raised, but Aragones' side brushed aside opening night nerves for the chance to continue the saga in Austria and Switzerland. But 25 points from a possible 27 in their last nine games embarrassed those who predicted the Spanish would fail to live up to their billing yet again. Aragones, the hot-tempered coach, has a wealth of talent at his disposal and should be quietly confident his side can have a major impact at the Championships.

Real Madrid's Iker Casillas cemented his place as the national team's No1 long ago, while club team-mate Sergio Ramos is one of the most sought-after defensive players in European football.

A midfield of Cesc Fabregas, Xavi and Andres Iniesta offers the craft and pace to provide for Liverpool sensation Fernando Torres up front. David Villa – his country's top scorer in qualification – is much more than an able deputy should Aragones decide to play with two in attack.

Of Spain's main contenders in Group D, Russia perhaps possess the biggest threat. Having eventually negotiated a tough qualification – England were their main rivals for second spot in Group E – a large section of Guus Hiddink's young squad then tasted victory in last month's Uefa Cup final and will hope to put that experience to good use.

The Dutchman favours the industry and security of a packed midfield, where Konstantin Zyrianov is the oldest head at 30, while relying on star player Andrei Arshavin to provide the spark. However, the absence of a classy centre-forward could blunt Russian ambitions of matching the former Soviet Union's success at previous finals.

Sweden can draw comfort from the their win against Spain in the qualifiers and are set to renew battles at the top of the group again. A bright start to Group F almost guaranteed participation at their fifth successive finals, as Lars Lagerback's men seek to go one further than their semi-final side of 1992.

The Swede faced a major headache in relation to who would partner the stylish Zlatan Ibrahimovic in attack, but fears were eased when Henrik Larsson announced his return to the international fold last month. The veteran hitman – who has six goals in 11 outings for hometown Helsingborgs – had retired following a disappointing World Cup two years ago. On the flanks, Fredrik Ljunberg and Christian Wilhelmsson add imagination to the strong work ethic that exists within the Scandinavian set-up.

Concluding with the reigning champions may seem like a ploy to leave the best till last, but truth is that Greece have not covered themselves in glory since shocking the world four years ago. Otto Rehhagel's unfashionable side completed arguably the biggest upset in the history of the game when they captured Europe's premier prize in Portugal.

Failure to then qualify for World Cup 2006 has been tempered with the accruement of more points in qualifying than anyone else (31), yet the Greeks' reliance on sound defending does not exactly inspire. Maintaining the nucleus of the Pirate Ship's heroic team of 2004 will give the holders Championship experience, but they rely too heavily on Angelos Charisteas and Georgios Karagounis.

All this will be rendered irrelevant, though, should the super-slick Spanish shock the football world by finally fulfilling their potential.

 

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