Spain eye unique treble as Euros loom
Spain will begin as hot favourites to complete an unprecedented treble next month when the European Championship ventures into new territory in Poland and Ukraine.
Winners of Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, Spain will become the first footballing nation to complete a hat-trick of major championships if Vicente del Bosque's side retain their crown.
No side has ever retained the European championship, underscoring the concentrated competitiveness of the 16-team tournament which many purists regard as superior in quality to the 32-team World Cup.
However Spain retain the nucleus of a side which has carried all before them on their march to World and European titles, easing their way through their qualifying group with a 100 percent record.
Del Bosque has warned his side that they cannot afford to ease up, with the failure of both Real Madrid and Barcelona to reach this month's Champions League final serving as a timely reminded against the perils of complacency.
"It's important that we are not thinking about the last Euro and the World Cup because it is important to have excitement for a new championship like the Euros," he said.
"We cannot allow ourselves to think that we are the best because if we do that would be the first step to failure."
Spain kick off their campaign against old rivals Italy in the Polish city of Gdansk on June 10, and will be expected to qualify comfortably from a group which also contains Croatia and the Republic of Ireland.
Meanwhile Germany, the side viewed by many as the most potent threat to Spanish hopes of retaining the title, will get their championship under way on June 9, when they face Portugal in the Ukrainian city of Lviv.
Germany, beaten by Spain in the 2008 final before losing out again to del Bosque's side in the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup, face a demanding Group B, where their other opponents are the Netherlands, Denmark and Portugal.
However the strength of the German challenge is reflected by their ability to call on several members of the Bayern Munich side due to face Chelsea in the Champions League final on May 19, notably goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, defender Philipp Lahm, midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger and striker Mario Gomez.
With the likes of Real Madrid duo Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira also available, few would bet against a German side which was the only other side to qualify with a perfect record, notching 10 wins out of 10.
Meanwhile the ability of co-hosts Poland and Ukraine to mount a credible challenge remains in question.
Poland, who face Greece, Russia and the Czech Republic in Group A, failed to make it to the 2010 World Cup and only qualified for their first Euros at the 2008 event, when they went out in the first round.
However an impressive 2-2 draw in a friendly with Germany last year, which showcased the striking ability of Robert Lewandowski, as well as the emergence of Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny will give the Poles hope that they can confound pre-tournament expectations and reach the next round.
Ukraine meanwhile will be the side that no-one wants to face in Group D, which includes 2000 champions France along with England and Sweden.
France have regrouped steadily since the trauma of the World Cup two years ago, when Les Bleus were dumped out in the first round after a campaign which featured an open player revolt and ultimately led to a government inquiry.
The French demonstrated their steady progress under Laurent Blanc earlier this year with a 2-1 friendly win over Germany.
France open their campaign in Donetsk on June 11 against an England side who will head into the tournament with expectations at an all-time low following a chaotic build-up marked by the abrupt exit of coach Fabio Capello in February.
The protracted guessing game over the identity of Capello's successor ended last week when Roy Hodgson was named to take over as England coach.
England will also be without their best player, Manchester United's Wayne Rooney, for the opening two games of the tournament following his red card in the final qualifying game against Montenegro last year.