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( L-R )Spain's Cesc Fabregas , Alvaro Arbeloa and Gerard Pique attend a training session for the Euro 2012 at PGE Arena Stadium in Gdansk June 9, 2012. Spain will play its first match of the Euro 2012 soccer championships against Italy in Gdansk, Poland on June 10. (JUAN MEDINA/REUTERS)
( L-R )Spain's Cesc Fabregas , Alvaro Arbeloa and Gerard Pique attend a training session for the Euro 2012 at PGE Arena Stadium in Gdansk June 9, 2012. Spain will play its first match of the Euro 2012 soccer championships against Italy in Gdansk, Poland on June 10. (JUAN MEDINA/REUTERS)

Euro 2012

Spain’s quest for a third straight major title begins vs. Italy Add to ...

It won’t be a lack of talent that undermines Spain’s bid for a third consecutive major tournament win, it will be a lack of motivation – or exhaustion.

For the last four years, nearly every one of its players has endured interminably long seasons, mostly playing for Barcelona and Real Madrid at domestic level, then joining up with the national team for European championship, World Cup and even Confederations Cup tournaments during the summer. With the demand on Spanish soccer players virtually year-round, getting a chance to rest up and heal nagging injuries is rare, but with the depth of talent available to Spain coach Vicente del Bosque at least there is a legitimate chance for squad rotation without undermining the competitive level of the team.

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For Italy, the challenge for coach Cesare Prandelli is returning his country to respectability after taking over following an embarrassing first-round exit in South Africa two years ago. If qualifying form is anything to go by, the Azzurri will be flying after going unbeaten in qualifying for Euro 2012, but a closer examination reveals their most feared opposition in that 10-game tournament was Estonia, hardly the most accurate of litmus tests. The recent 3-0 defeat to Russia may be a better barometer of Italy’s form heading into the finals.

Still, after being knocked out by Spain on penalties four years ago in the quarter-finals, what better way to kick off Italy’s 2012 campaign than a rematch.

Italy’s player to watch: Andrea Pirlo

Moved from AC Milan to Juventus this past season without missing a beat – leading the Old Lady of Italian soccer to its 28th scudetto. Gets a chance to pit wits against both Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez for the first time – one of the three has been missing every time they’ve taken the pitch in previous contests between their two countries – but Italy will need him to pull strings in midfield if it is to generate the scoring chances needed to keep up with Spain.

Spain’s player to watch: Cesc Fabregas

With del Bosque opting to go without an out-and-out striker in the opening game against Italy, it will be up to the Barcelona midfielder to provide a cutting edge up front. With the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Silva putting passes on a dime, Fabregas won’t want for opportunities, but will his eye for goal be sharp enough to convert?

Injury woes

Other than missing both defender Carles Puyol and striker David Villa – the pair of Barcelona veterans were ruled out before the tournament – Spain enters its opener with a clean bill of health.

For Italy, defender David Barzagli picked up a calf injury, and though ruled out of the first two Group C matches, is hopeful of a return for the game against Ireland. Midfielder Daniele De Rossi will deputize in his absence.

Quotables

In Spain we believe we can win, but we know there are other teams who think the same. I think we will be fighting mainly against Germany, Netherlands and Italy.

“But of course we don’t rule out England.”

Spain midfielder Cesc Fabregas on his country’s chances of become the first team to successfully defend the European championship.

“Unbelievable line up for Spain. No striker playing. This could end up looking like a training ground game of possession.”

Former England striker Michael Owen takes to Twitter to comment on Spain’s lineup for the opening match

Did you know?

After going eight for eight in qualifying, Spain became one of only five teams to go through with a 100-per-cent record in the history of the European championship.

Prediction

Spain 2-1 Italy

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