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Euro 2012 Focus: Spain's Uncertainty Up Front

Tony MabertContributor IMarch 21, 2012

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 21: Fernando Torres consoles David Villa of Spain after he missed a penalty during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Group H match between Spain and Honduras at Ellis Park Stadium on June 21, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa.  (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)
Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

Two years ago, David Villa finished the 2010 World Cup as joint-top scorer as Spain won the tournament in Johannesburg.

Rewind back a further two years, and it was Fernando Torres who scored the winning goal in the final against Germany in Vienna.

Looking ahead to this summer's European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, there are big question marks regarding the involvement of both of those players as La Furia Roja attempt to become the first nation ever to retain the Henri Delaunay trophy.

Villa has been absent from all football since fracturing his leg in December. The 30-year-old is facing a race against time to recover and make his bid to top-score in a third consecutive international tournament. Spain coach Vicente del Bosque is hopeful that the Barcelona striker will make a full recovery before naming his final squad, and will give him as much opportunity as possible to do so.

Del Bosque told Iain Rogers of Reuters: "The people around him think, and he himself thinks, that he will be there.

"We will wait until the last minute because we are talking about the best goalscorer that we currently have in Spain, the most reliable.

"He has in the recent past been one of the architects of Spain's goals, so we will wait."

As for Torres, his travails have been well documented and repeated by both those who would love to see him return to his former glories, and others who enjoy reveling in his misfortunes.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 11:  Fernando Torres of Chelsea looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Chelsea at Goodison Park on February 11, 2012 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Torres suffered an injury in the World Cup final after coming on as a substitute. That, coupled with Liverpool's disastrous dip in fortunes the following season, saw him cut a jaded, lacklustre figure both in his final months at Anfield and much of his time at Chelsea. His two FA Cup goals against Leicester at the weekend took his tally with the Blues to seven goals in 52 appearances.

Again, Del Bosque has said he will give the man who was once the most fearsome striker in world football every chance of proving himself in the run-up to this summer's competition.

"We still have time for him to prove that he should return to the national team," he said.

While Torres's contribution to the Chelsea cause has grown in significance—in terms of effort if not goals—as the season has progressed, he still has plenty of ground to make up if he is to return to anything like the player he once was.

As for Villa, even if he does regain fitness in time to make the final 23-man squad there are no guarantees that Spain's all-time record goalscorer will hit the ground running, or indeed ever be the same player again.

So if neither man is fit or fitting to lead the line for Spain in eastern Europe, who can Del Bosque turn to in search of goals?

The two main contenders at the moment are Valencia striker Roberto Soldado and Athletic Bilbao centre-forward Fernando Llorente.

Soldado is well on course to beating last season's return of 18 goals in La Liga, having already netted 15 this term with 11 matches of the campaign remaining. The 26-year-old also struck five times in the group stages of this season's Champions League, although Valencia ultimately failed to qualify from their group.

The former Real Madrid forward returned to the international set-up after an almost five-year absence in February, and responded by scoring a hat-trick in a friendly against Venezuela. Those were his first three goals for the senior side, lending a slightly deceptive air to his strike rate of three goals in three caps.

In addition, Del Bosque did not use Soldado at all during the team's qualifying campaign, in which they won all eight of their Group I matches. Soldado may be the man who fits the bill, but he remains largely untested at the highest level of international football.

Llorente is only a few months older than Soldado, having turned 27 last month, but he has plenty more international experience under his belt.

The target man has played for Spain 20 times since Del Bosque gave him his debut in 2008, scoring seven times in his sporadic run in the team. Three of those strikes have come in his five appearances during Euro 2012 qualifying, a brace against Lithuania and the winner in a breathless 3-2 win over Scotland at Hampden Park.

The Athletic striker has also won many admirers recently for his opening goals in each leg of the Europa League tie with Manchester United, including a stunning strike in the second leg at the Estadio San Mames as the Basque side sent the Red Devils crashing out of the competition in thrilling style.

Llorente possesses the high level of technique which is a prerequisite for any player hoping to get anywhere near the Spain team, but his height is an attribute which literally puts him head and shoulders above his rivals. Standing at 6'4", Llorente's stature adds the possibility of another dimension to Spain's game. 

Most of Spain's midfielders and forwards are of short to average height, something for which their supreme short passing play on the ground usually more than compensates. However, when teams successfully set out to stifle them and nick a goal on the break, as Switzerland did with their 1-0 win in their World Cup group game in South Africa, then the ability to utilise the added height and hold-up play of Llorente could prove priceless.

As well as the aforementioned quartet, Del Bosque has also used Soldado's Valencia teammate Aritz Aduriz and Sevilla striker Alvaro Negredo during qualifying for the Euros.

Aduriz was confined to just one appearance off the bench in that campaign—a reflection of his fortunes at club level this season—while Negredo's brace in a 6-0 win over Liechtenstein hardly has him pushing to the front of the queue, especially given a disappointing domestic season by his standards.

Spain remain, quite rightly, the world's best team and favourites going into the Euros, but Del Bosque will be fortunate to go into his first title defence as an international coach with any certainty about who his lead striker is going to be.

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