Following Spain's Euro 2008 semi-final crushing of Russia, Goal.com's Sulmaan Ahmad asks just what has changed and whether this is a sign of things to come...
Talk of second being an achievement in itself is not to suggest that losing is an eventuality or even strong possibility for the Spanish, who face the tournament's most successful country with three triumphs and are now in their sixth final, to Spain's one success in two finals. In fact, there are abounding reasons to suggest Luis Aragones may guide his men to glory over the Mannschaft: not least their more challenging group and knockout opponents, more convincing results (including being the only team still unbeaten) and performances, as well as what looks to be a superior side on paper. What Germany have on their side is an incredible history - though this current outfit has had little part in it - and physical strength. Their winning mentality and pedigree is quite arguably second to none in world football, never mind Europe, and their height advantage over Portugal that proved decisive could also do so against Spain as well.
That being said, the Spanish have certainly improved in this regard, moreso than the Portuguese, who are still one or two steps behind in development. Spain have gone over 20 games unbeaten and are brimming with confidence, and also putting more emphasis on strength in order to compete with the top sides in big games. They look a more complete side, but why? The tales of poor team spirit always appear to have been greatly exaggerated and made an excuse for a talented nation's consistent failure to achieve. What Spain have done is faced their fears, determined their deficiencies and learned how to compensate for them.
For that, coach Luis Aragones must command a great amount of respect and credit, even if some of Spain's limitations are in fact his own doing. For one, his decision not to bring any genuine wingers is one he may still live to regret, particularly as talented but ultimately superfluous selections such as Ruben de la Red warm the bench. Would the likes of Diego Capel or Joaquin not better suited Spain's cause and offered them an invaluable extra dimension? Nevertheless, David Silva and Andres Iniesta's roaming midfield roles along with the vibrant Fernando Torres showing he is more than just a number nine have, at least in part, made up for this shortcoming. Their primary weakness is in central defence, particularly in light of Carles Puyol's hit-and-miss season with Barcelona. However, like most Blaugrana representatives at the tournament, the Catalan has turned it on when it mattered, and while his partner Carlos Marchena remains something of a lumbering liability and Luis' unflinching loyalty to him perhaps somewhat questionable, Spain have protected the defence well with a deep-lying and disciplined midfield and full-backs - something that the Netherlands also did early on to compensate for their even weaker backline, but eventually took offensive gambles and paid for it with their place in the tournament.
Spain's place in the final is testament to their current pedigree and evolution as a team, but what will it take to ensure they have the staying power to first win on Sunday in Vienna, and then remain in and around the upper echelons of European football? Sunday's game will be Aragones' last in charge of la Roja, and former Real Madrid boss Vicente Del Bosque - winner of two leagues and two Champions Leagues in his four years in charge of the Spanish champions - will be taking over.
First and foremost, there is the Cesc Fabregas dilemma: a player far too good to leave on the bench - as proven this summer - yet accommodating him to leave the strikeforce a man short could prove costly in the long run. It worked well yesterday against Russia, when David Villa was forced off injured early on, but is a dangerous game to play, as Torres without a support striker will not be prolific enough and Villa on his own could bear occasional fruit, but he too has always worked best with a strike partner. As suggested recently, considering long-term consistency and quality, David Silva is the closest thing Spain have to a weak link in the final third and could be replaced by Fabregas, with Iniesta taking the roaming wide role and Cesc linking midfield to attack. In shackling a red-hot Andrei Arshavin and dictating play yesterday, Xavi and Marcos Senna proved just why their partnership in the middle is indispensable if not always headline material.
Aragones' decision has been made for him going into the final, as David Villa - top scorer with four goals - has tragically been all-but ruled out of the final due to the injury picked up against Russia, therefore a straight swap for Fabregas is likely to solve that problem - at least temporarily. For all Fabregas' qualities, pace and dribbling are not among them - and nor is goal scoring - he is best suited to taking a midfield role in the long run, which leaves Spain short of a second second striker.
This brings us to Raul - the man to whom Villa bears a strong resemblance in terms of playing style, and the man he has directly replaced in the national team. Del Bosque coached el Siete through his peak and therefore if the Madrid captain and all-time leading scorer for Spain continues last season's title-winning form he is likely to earn a recall now Luis Aragones' tenure is coming to an end. Additionally, though Spain needn't start with wingers, the likes of Capel, Joaquin and Jesus Navas - should he overcome his crippling homesickness and be able to travel with the squad - would prove invaluable from the bench.
Spain certainly look like a side on the brink of success, and for once, the quality players are producing quality play on the big stage. Even if Aragones cannot end his tenure with the silverware coveted by the Spanish people, this squad has come on leaps and bounds from the Spain of old and are ready to compete amongst the final four year in year out on the international stage.
Much credit must go to a fallen Russia side. They were thoroughly outplayed by the Spanish for almost the entirety of the game for the second time in the tournament, but their football, like Spain's, has well and truly come on leaps and bounds. Guus Hiddink has inspired an already talented team to push on to the next level and they could well be here to stay, as their all-round strength, power and technique is commendable. Star man Andrei Arshavin has made his name as a big performer for the big games, but has always been playing for the underdogs. Russia's tag of underdogs in chief against perennial underachievers Spain almost made the Red Machine favourites last night, and with the spotlight on the elf-like forward who has attracted praise from all quarters, he was marshalled superbly and failed to deliver. This is far from the beginning of the end for him, though, as Barcelona - the club of his dreams - have made a formal approach for his services. Watch this space...