Andy Mitten

Gaizka Mendieta’s best Spain XI

Andy Mitten

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Spain's Gaizka Mendieta

Spain needs a lift. Headlines are unremittingly about the economy and unremittingly bad.

The gloom is unlikely to lift soon, so the country looks to its sports stars - top-level cyclists, basketball players, F1 drivers, Grand Prix bikers and world-class tennis pros - for positives.

But more than anything, Spaniards look to football to bring joy. Barcelona and Real Madrid succour their legions of supporters, but seldom at the same time. Only the great unifying force of La Roja does that.

Spain are the best team on the globe, the current world and European champions who are hoping to become the first team to defend a title.

"No team has ever won a major tournament while being champions of the world and Europe," says Xavi. "That's our motivation right there."

One person who knows the Spanish team better than most is Xavi's former Barca and Spain team-mate Gaizka Mendieta.

The retired Basque midfielder, 38, spent this week in Barbados playing in the British Airways Legends tournament alongside former Premier League A-listers like Alan Shearer, Andrew Cole, Gianfranco Zola and Roberto Di Matteo.

Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards have moved or are considering moving abroad to find work. Mendieta is one, though his circumstances are hardly conventional. He stayed in England after finishing a career which encompassed Castellon, their neighbours Valencia, a €48 million transfer to Lazio in 2001 (he's still the sixth most expensive player in history), Barcelona and Middlesbrough, where he currently lives with his English partner.

Mendieta played 40 times for Spain during a time when La Roja could never equal the sum of its parts, but things have changed.

"Spain have been the best team in the world for the past four years," says the Basque proudly. "But other teams have a better knowledge of Spain and the way they play and that will make it more difficult for Spain. The Euros not going to be as easy as some in Spain think."

Mendieta runs through his expected starting XI.

"Is there a better goalkeeper in the world than Iker Casillas?" he asks. "Casillas is the captain of the best national side in the world and he's been Real Madrid's goalkeeper for over a decade. He's a winner.

"In defence, Spain will miss (the injured) Carlos Puyol. His partnership with Gerard Pique worked for club and country and if missing Puyol wasn't enough, Pique is coming into the tournament after a tough season with Barca when he didn't play as often as he would have liked.

"Pique is world class though," adds Mendieta. "He's experienced at a young age and brings height which is useful at set pieces. He's not the quickest, but his positioning is excellent. He also starts attacks from the back which suits Spain.

"Pique will probably play in central defence alongside Javi Martinez or Sergio Ramos. Young, experienced and excellent, Martinez is like Pique. Maybe so similar that they won't be chosen together. He's had a great but unfortunate season with Athletic Bilbao, who ended up winning nothing, but he's getting better all the time. Martinez is versatile. He can play in defence or midfield.

"Sergio Ramos could play central defence or right-back, where he likes to get forward. Good in the air and passing over distance, he's coming into the tournament on a high after winning the league with Madrid.

"Jordi Alba or Alvaro Arbeloa is likely to play left-back," suggests Mendieta. "Alba has been getting better and better for Valencia and now for Spain. He's from Barcelona and maybe he'll join Barca. Either way, he's an excellent left-back who loves to run forward."

Spain are especially strong in midfield.

"The best," says Mendieta. "They usually play a 4-2-3-1 with Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets as central midfielders. This allows them to dominate possession, but the formation can switch so that Spain only have three defenders. Xavi Hernandez usually plays at the top of the midfield.

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Xavi of Spain

"Xavi makes Spain play. He can support attack or defence. Alonso has enjoyed a great season with Madrid. Liverpool fans saw what a great passer he is. Busquets is very important to the team. He's a central midfielder who can join the back four if the full-back goes forward. Busi took his time to establish his place in the national side, but he's become vital."

David Villa failed to recover from a broken leg to make it in time for the tournament. The Barca striker is Spain's all-time leading scorer, but his absence offers a dilemma for coach Vicente Del Bosque.

"I think he'll go with Fernando Torres at the top," says Mendieta. "Torres has struggled at Chelsea, but he finished the season well and made a big difference when he came on as substitute in the Champions League final. Fernando Llorente has done magnificently with Athletic Bilbao. He's always improving, but Torres fits into Spain's system more easily and I can't see Llorente starting games."

"Andres Iniesta will start, I'm sure of that," adds  Mendieta. "He's a fantastic player who makes the difference, makes things happen. He can change a game in seconds, score a winner like he did in the 2010 World Cup final.

"I recently watched a documentary about his year before he scored that goal in South Africa. It was fascinating because he had to put up with injuries and the death of one his close friends, (Espanyol captain) Dani Jarque. He showed great strength of character coming back from that and everyone in Spain recognises it. Barca are not always popular all over Spain, but Iniesta is."

Spain are blessed with riches in every position.

"Del Bosque can chose between David Silva or Juan Mata," concludes Mendieta. "These are two players who have done really well since moving to England. I think Silva will be the first choice, but Spain could play a second XI and still win the tournament."

Unlike the country's fractured economy, Spanish football has riches aplenty. Tournament favourites, Spain will be under pressure to succeed.

"Everyone wants to beat the champion," says Xavi. "But we are ready."

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