There's still the small matter of the World Cup finals to deal with first, but Euro 2012 has started already with the qualifying draw, and the first reflection is that neither the defending champions, Spain (boy, it feels good to finally be able to refer to your team like that) nor any of the big guns have a daunting task ahead.
By whichever arcane method the seedings were decided, Uefa got them right this time, and there won't be a Germany v England or a France v Italy in qualifying. In fact, looking at the list of top-seed versus second-seed games, the biggest thing you can see is arguably a Germany v Turkey pairing. This will make it difficult for any excitement to be produced, unless some of the top teams start slipping on the proverbial banana skins, but at least this almost guarantees that the best teams should make it to the finals. Actually, Germany, with derbies against Austria, plus fallen giants Belgium in their group, have quite an awkward journey, but nobody is more solvent at qualifying than the Germans.
Spain have probably the easiest group of all. Not only has it got one team less than most, making it only eight games to play, but the second seed, the Czech Republic, is a team on the wane. The last of their brilliant squad of the last decade and a half are gone now, and they haven't even made it to the 2010 World Cup (no-one else in Spain's group have). As has been proved by other Central and Eastern European nations, a great generation of footballers doesn't have to be followed by another. Just ask Romania, Bulgaria, or further back, Poland or Hungary. Looking for the typical footballing legends for this kind of TV thing, Poland were still represented at this draw by two players from the 1970s and 80s, Boniek and Szarmach, which says a lot.
Scotland should be interesting. Without resorting to clichés and over-generalisations, few teams are as far apart in their way of playing football right now as Spain and Scotland. The Scots don't qualify much for anything these days, but they stood their ground against Italy and France in the 2008 qualification, and won't give up points easily. These teams have faced each other only 11 times, which is not much taking into account that they share a continental zone but not a normally seeding pot. Four victories to Spain and three to Scotland is how it stands. The last time was a friendly in Valencia in 2004, but for the previous game you have to go back to 1987, so there's not much in the way of direct current experience.
Lithuania is the type of king-making team who can give a hand to one nation by losing against them and then taking some points off the others. They will be keen to pull a Latvia-2004, though. And finally, Liechtenstein means probably six points for everybody else. The fact that this team wasn't even in the bottom pot speaks volumes.
The main drawbacks for Spain could be the shortness of the group, which is an advantage for tiredness, but limits the number of games available for recovery if you trip up or get complacent. Whatever Spain do this summer in the World Cup, two years will follow of drudgery and limited challenges at international level, and the fact that everyone will think that Spain has got an easy ride could lead to players not trying their hardest, their heads turned by club prizes, like Champions Leagues and domestic tournaments.
Fortunately, Spain have an excellent qualifying record. The last times Spain missed a senior tournament were Euro 1992, when only eight teams qualified, and Euro 1976, with just four finalists. See you all in Poland / Ukraine, then.
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Javier Sierra en el Parador de Sigüenza
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