Euro 2008 champions are favorites once again

There's no sense in picking against Spain to capture its second straight European Championship. The reigning World Cup champions are just as strong as they've ever been. Their roster, from Xavi to Xabi Alonso, is replete with stars at every position provided almost entirely by Barcelona and Real Madrid, the two most dominant teams in Europe this season.

Of course, both teams were shockingly knocked out of the Champions League in the semifinals. The rest of Europe would like to think that also gives them hope to emerge with the crown when their four-week international showcase concludes.

"Look what happened to Chelsea," Fox Soccer analyst and English Premier League veteran Warren Barton said. "Players missing, suspension, injuries, new coach. They went out and won it."

2012 European Championship
Where » Poland and Ukraine
When » Group stage, June 8-19; Quarterfinals, June 21-24; Semifinals, June 27-28; Final, July 1

England's build-up has been similar to the recently crowned Champions League winners, even if being FIFA's No. 7-ranked team in the world should make them favorites in Group D. Roy Hodgson was hired as manager last month after Fabio Capello abruptly resigned in February. Midfield anchor Frank Lampard was ruled out last week with a thigh injury, and defender Rio Ferdinand was omitted after a racial controversy involving fellow center back John Terry. Wayne Rooney, England's most dynamic and talented player, is suspended for the first two games.

That means he'll miss England's opening match against France on June 11 -- one of three major rivalry games in the tournament's first six days, all of which are expected to be the usual close, tense affairs associated with the Euros. Italy and Spain have been paired together in Group ?C and meet on June 10, and a Group B rematch of the 1974 World Cup final between the Netherlands and Germany takes place June 13.

"When you have the World Cup, you have teams that maybe have never been in that position before, and stronger teams can overwhelm the smaller nations," Barton said. "Here the level is so high, the competition is so strong in Europe, every nation has got a great opportunity."

That includes the co-hosts, Poland (Group A with attack-minded Russia) and Ukraine (Group ?D), even though both Switzerland and Austria failed to advance to the knockout stage when the tournament was staged there two years ago. What is more likely in Kiev on July 1 is a rematch of the 2010 World Cup final, which the Netherlands lost in overtime to Spain, or a rematch of the 2008 Euro final, which the Spaniards claimed over Germany on a lone goal from striker Fernando Torres.

Torres rediscovered his form with Chelsea late in the season, and the comfort of having his countrymen around him should strengthen him further. The Germans are also in top form, but France's road to its first final since 2000 might be the easiest if they snatch Group D over England and Sweden.

The English, meanwhile, will try to consider escaping group play as a success.

"It's the first time, at least from when I can remember, when they've gone into a competition with no expectations," Barton said. "It's always been, 'This is our tournament, this is our time.' I want to remind everybody, it was 1966 the last time we won a major competition. I think for everyone at the moment, they're the underdog."