Spain's success stems from victory over Italy
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -Spain's reign at the top of world football started four years ago at the European Championship, and some believe the run of good fortune can be traced back to one particular shootout victory over Italy.
At Euro 2012, the Italians will get another shot.
On June 10 in Gdansk, the last two world champions will renew their rivalry to open Group C.
"That (win) removed the pressure. That game was a relief,'' Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas said. "From there on, with the semifinal against Russia, Spain's form of playing changed radically and so did our luck, which never seemed to accompany us until then.''
Many of Spain's players often credit that quarterfinal win as the turning point for a nation rich in talent but mostly accompanied by failure at major tournaments.
Since Spain beat Germany in the Euro 2008 final, the team has won 33 of 36 competitive matches- including the 2010 World Cup.
This year, Spain and Italy are favored to emerge from a group that includes Croatia and Ireland. But the Spanish will be playing without the injured Carles Puyol and David Villa, the team's all-time leading scorer.
"His absence is key because David is such an important player for us,'' Spain midfielder Santi Cazorla said. "If he wasn't at the Euro or the World Cup, there's no doubt Spain would not have been champion. It's a tremendous blow.''
Without Villa, Fernando Torres and Fernando Llorente are set to lead the Spanish attack, while Italy's potent - if volatile - forward line complements a trademark defense that has surrendered only two goals in 10 qualifying games.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli has made a big mark on and off the field with an ethics code that has restored the discipline lacking when the team failed to reach the knockout stage in South Africa two years ago. He has taken a chance on notoriously talented bad boys Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, while Udinese striker Antonio Di Natale was also called up for the first time under Prandelli.
"There's a young group and they have so much enthusiasm,'' Di Natale said. "Prandelli has created a good group in these two years and brought a lot of enthusiasm. I think this team can do well. I've never played with Cassano or Balotelli but I think it would work well, even together with both of them.''
Both Ireland or Croatia will be ready to seize an opportunity depending on what happens in the opening match.
"People can say I'm crazy, but I really believe that we are capable of fighting for the title,'' Croatia coach Slaven Bilic said.
Bilic, who is departing for Lokomotiv Moscow after the tournament, led Croatia to victory over eventual finalist Germany and into the quarterfinals four years ago. The team boasts one of Europe's most inform strikers in Nikica Jelavic, who has scored 11 goals in 16 appearances at Everton.
Ireland is making its second appearance. The Irish beat England 1-0 in their only other European tournament in 1988.
Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni has decided to spare striker Robbie Keane, goalkeeper Shay Given and defender John O'Shea from warm-up matches in the hopes that his team will be able to spring some surprises at Euro 2012.
"Everyone thought that Barcelona would win the Champions League but they lost. Denmark were on holidays and came back to win the European Championship before (in 1992),'' Trapattoni said. "I played against the best player in the world one time, Pele. I thought I was dead. I won the game.''
Associated Press writers Daniella Matar in Milan, Mark Walsh in Manchester and Pan Pylas in London contributed to this report.