Seville: Opponents may have figured out how to counter Spain's formula for success that proved so effective at recent tournaments.
In its last warm-up before the European Championship, Spain's 1-0 victory over China on Sunday displayed all of the World Cup champions' virtues: possession, slick passing and intricate combinations. But it also highlighted the notable absences of David Villa and Carles Puyol.
The Spanish defense was lucky to escape without conceding a goal after several lapses, and its wealth of midfield talent can be rendered ineffective without a striker capable of converting numerous chances. Fernando Torres and Alvaro Negredo failed to score, a concern going into Sunday's Euro 2012 opener against Italy, a more formidable opponent.
It took Andres Iniesta's entrance after halftime to sway the game in Spain's favour, as the World Cup hero linked up perfectly with David Silva for a late winner with the pair of playmakers gelling naturally while Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso struggled to break through China's disciplined defense.
"We're going into games well-prepared. The thing is that our rivals are better prepared for us and make it more difficult," said coach Vicente del Bosque, who surpassed Luis Aragones as the longest-serving national team coach after his 55th match.
Iniesta, who scored the extra-time winner in the 2010 World Cup final against the Netherlands, will be one of the linchpins of Spain's attack at the tournament with all-time leading scorer Villa missing.
"Andres makes everything easier," Silva said.
Spain's midfield is replete with talent thanks to Juan Mata and Santi Cazorla, but Cesc Fabregas' return from a hamstring injury is important if Xavi is not in top form following a season battling a calf injury. Torres, Negredo and Fernando Llorente have little time to secure the starting striker's place, either.
"The debate over the starting No. 9 will continue on to the end of the Euro," said Negredo, who failed to net two clear chances.
The parallels between Spain and Barcelona's style of play are evident, as are the methods being adapted by opponents against both.
Against Barcelona, Chelsea stood firm and disciplined in defense and converted its few counterattacks to eliminate the defending champions on course to winning the Champions League. That Barcelona squad, like Spain's, was overly reliant on its midfield talent and the talent of Lionel Messi with Villa missing.
The same defensive tactics were used by the Netherlands in the final in South Africa, and are very likely to be employed again against the pre-tournament favourites by Group C rivals, which also include Ireland and Croatia.
"Spain believes in its qualities, it has absolute confidence in its style of play," said China coach Jose Antonio Camacho, who previously led Spain. "All teams will try to play like us against Spain — to defend well and try to take advantage of the counter."
Del Bosque wasn't pleased with his team's "lazy" start when uncharacteristic turnovers from sloppy passing built up China's confidence. The Chinese would have taken the lead had it not been for Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who has repeatedly bailed out the defense with spectacular stops like the save against the Dutch in 2010. With Puyol out, Del Bosque has to decide whether Gerard Pique or Raul Albiol partners Sergio Ramos in the center of defense.
Puyol and Villa turned down the chance to travel with the team to focus on recovering from their injuries in time for the start of the new season. Spain's players also revealed Monday they would be allowed to use social media after initially being barred from doing so.