Time to take Spain off the Euro 2012 favorite’s perch

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A lot of people already had Germany or the Netherlands as their Euro 2012 favorites, but in international soccer, a lot of predictions fall back on the usual tropes. German pragmatism, brilliant Oranje – with similar aphorisms, some will pick Italy or France to claim this summer’s crown, statures their more measured coaches can’t envision for squads still in the middle of rebuild processes.

Spain was this summer’s favorite, though not overwhelmingly so. Two years after the claimed their first world title with the understated force of a father’s coercing hand on a seven-year-old’s shoulder, nobody had made a better claim to being the world’s best. Germany has reached the most difficult part of their current cycle, shifting from aspirations to expectations, while the Netherlands have never been as good as South Africa’s scrappy second place finish implied.

Today, however, everything changed. The same pithy doubts that undermine the German and Dutch profiles now apply doubly so to Spain. After all, the complaints against the former underdogs are more ethereal than substantial. Germany waiting for their Özil-Müller-lead kids to come good? That may be a matter of time. And qualms about the Netherlands’ underlying quality in South Africa? Well, they did finish second.

Having lost their best defender, Spain has a real, tangible hole, though some would disagree about the quality of Carles Puyol. With his proven ability to lock down opponents in big games, he’s still the first defender I’d want if I had one game to win. There’s a reason why Pep Guardiola often shook up his defense when facing Real Madrid, jumping through hoops to match Puyol opposite Cristiano Ronaldo whenever possible. Barcelona’s suicidally high line would be impossible to pull off without Puyol’s speed and intelligence, yet asked to name Puyol’s best qualities, most are more likely to mention his tenacity and physicality, the latter more of a hair-derived stereotype than something you see on a game-to-game basis.

The 34-year-old’s though to have lost a step, becoming more mistake prone. With almost any analysis of defenders, it’s easy to use isolated examples to draw different conclusions. With Puyol, however, complaints are usually drawn along the Real-Barça divide.

Even if Puyol has slipped, his value to Barcelona has not. Same with Spain. If he’s a waning talent, he’s still a relative titan for his two teams. His loss is debilitating no matter your opinion of his value. With questions surrounding Gerard Piqué’s quality (Puyol’s partner struggling through the last half of his club season), it’s unclear who will lead the Vicente de Bosque’s line June 10.

“It’s a serious setback,” Spain’s boss told AS after news of Puyol’s injury got out, “he’s a considerable loss not only for what he gives on the pitch, but for what he contributes to the team (off it).”

“Beyond the question of whether or not it effects my [tactical] plans, he is a charismatic and hugely important player who was on the verge of 100 caps. He was in great form. It’s a real pity.”

With David Villa’s status uncertain (the Barcelona striker recovering from a broken leg), Spain has major uncertainties both up top and at the back. Roberto Soldado and/or Fernando Llorente are expected to vie for spots in attack, while today’s defense looks something like (right-to-left) Alvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba.

Will that be good enough? Who knows, and that’s the point. With Puyol going down, there are just too many questions surrounding Spain to consider them Euro’s favorites.

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