Spain pressured to retain Euro title

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MADRID (AP) - Spain's entire squad has finally come together for the last exhibition before the European Championship, with the defending champions playing China on Sunday.

A week later, Spain opens against Italy to start the campaign to retain the title and give the debt-stricken nation a morale boost.

Nine players from the Copa del Rey final between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao, who missed Spain's training sessions in Austria and wins over Serbia and South Korea, joined the team on Friday.

While Spain's 23-man squad finally assembled, midfielder Cesc Fabregas trained separately as the Barcelona midfielder recovers from a hamstring injury. Medical scans on Friday ruled Fabregas out of Sunday's game at Seville's Olympic Stadium but he could be ready for the opener against Italy and subsequent Group C games against Ireland and Croatia.

Spain travels on Tuesday to Poland, which is co-hosting the tournament with Ukraine from Friday.

"They had six or seven days of rest and I don't think that will be a handicap," Del Bosque said on Saturday. "I think they are all in good shape."

An economic crisis has embroiled Spain with bank bailouts and talk of a Eurozone default filling the news daily. On Friday, Spain visited Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who called on the national team to do its part to relieve worries.

"Spaniards need some joy considering the difficult circumstances we're living through. A Spanish triumph would give them all a morale boost," Rajoy said.

The daily circumstances inside the country filled conversations between the players, too.

"We're in the midst of a serious crisis and, in one sense, football is a good thing for it," midfielder Xavi Hernandez said. "If the national team is playing well then that can also have an effect on people's character. Let's see if we can provide some joy for the people."

Coach Vicente Del Bosque was under no illusions of the task ahead as Spain looks to become the first team to successfully defend its European title after winning the World Cup.

"We're under a lot of pressure because we all know the optimism is excessive," Del Bosque said. "There are 16 national teams and to say it will be a cakewalk is not easy. We're used to pressure and will try to live up to these circumstances."

Del Bosque must reconfigure his attack and defense with David Villa and Carles Puyol missing to injury. Fernando Torres, Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo are the three strikers vying to fill all-time leading scorer Villa's place, while Sergio Ramos is expected to slide over from fullback to partner Gerard Pique in central defense with Puyol out.

"The harmony we hold inside the changing room is fundamental when it comes to competing at the highest level," said Ramos, who has had to brush off questions about ill-feelings between Real Madrid's and Barcelona's players following another season of ill-tempered matches between them.

Spain is the Group C favorite, especially following Italy's 3-0 loss to Russia on Friday. Italy's third straight loss - its worst run of results since 1983 - comes with the country's soccer embroiled in a match-fixing scandal and without any more warmup games after Tuesday's game against Luxembourg was cancelled after an earthquake hit the north of the country.

"The Italians have excellent players in all positions," Del Bosque said in evaluation of the result, without elaborating.

Former Spain coach Jose Antonio Camacho guides China in his native country as it regroups following its exit from qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

Copyright 2014 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.
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