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Gunning for greatest ever

No argument if Spain wins 2014 World Cup

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KIEV, Ukraine -- Spain has taken its place among football's all-time great sides by becoming the first team to defend its European Championship after winning the World Cup. The task, now, is to be remembered as the greatest.

The team will now look ahead to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil to retain its title from two years ago in South Africa. If the Spaniards can do that, it will be virtually impossible to deny them the moniker of best team ever.

On Sunday, Spain thumped Italy 4-0 in the Euro 2012 final to secure an unprecedented third straight major title for a European team. The riveting display was the most lopsided scoreline produced by any winner of a European or World Cup final.

"The bar has been set very high," midfielder Xavi Hernandez said. "The expectations are high. Now everyone will expect us to always triumph, and it's better that way. Before it was more difficult."

The Spaniards improved with every game of a month-long tournament in which they were at times criticized for being boring for playing possession-based football and starting some matches with six midfielders instead of a recognized striker.

Spain certainly has done an impressive job of winning since Luis Aragones' side won Euro 2008 with flair, and his replacement Vicente del Bosque has stayed true to Spain's "tiki taka" -- or quick-touch and free-flowing -- style.

Del Bosque became just the second coach after West Germany's Helmut Schoen to win European and world titles. He has tinkered some and although the Spaniards didn't always roll in the goals in Poland and Ukraine, they have showed the maturity, patience and confidence of veteran champions.

The former Real Madrid coach was criticized for playing without a traditional striker and relying on attacking midfielders like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas to carry the attack. All four players were involved in nearly each of the four goals Sunday.

Spain effectively neutralized opponents through possession, with its heavy passing game tiring them and creating the chances they needed to break through. And the defence has been as reliable, too.

"What we do is difficult but we make it look easy. It wasn't a walk in the park," said goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas, who hasn't conceded a goal in the elimination stages of a tournament since the 2006 World Cup, a run of 10 games. "We won being true to our playing style, and by moving the ball, the we way we moved it we knew how to take charge of the match."

Since that European Championship triumph in Vienna four years ago, Spain became the first team to win 15 straight competitive fixtures and matched Brazil's record 35-game unbeaten run from the 1990s. Spain finished qualifying for the last two major tournaments perfect and are currently unbeaten in 20 straight official games.

West Germany and France are the previous World Cup champions who failed to win that coveted third straight trophy, while winning three straight titles that included a World Cup has also eluded Brazil.

Spain's next task will certainly be its biggest test as it will have to win in 2014 in Brazil, a nation that has won five World Cups and produced arguably the greatest national team ever.

"Our performance was complete," Iniesta said. "(Still) I never could have imagined this."

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 3, 2012 C6

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