Pain for Spain as Puyol to miss finals

Spain’s Euro 2012 preparations suffered a further major blow yesterday when key defender Carles Puyol was ruled out with a knee injury, while first-choice forward David Villa may not recover in time to make the squad.

Tournament favourites Spain will now likely be without at least two of their most important players when they meet Ireland in Gdansk on Jun 14 in both teams’ second Group C clash.

Puyol injured his right knee in Barcelona’s 4-0 win over Espanyol last Saturday and needs an operation and six weeks to recover. Spain coach Vicente del Bosque yesterday accepted that the 98-cap defender was now out of his plans.

“It is a serious setback,” said Del Bosque. “It is a painful loss for us, not just for what he gives us on the field, but for how he carries the team. He was having a magnificent end to the season and was one of our fixtures in the team.”

The veteran coach had told Spanish radio show El Larguero on Monday that he had already decided 18 or 20 names for his final 23-man squad, but that Spain’s all-time leading goalscorer Villa — who broke his leg playing for Barcelona late last year — was unlikely to make the plane to Poland.

“Villa is an unknown,” said Del Bosque. “He is doing everything he can to recover, but we are worried. It is very difficult to bring someone who has been unable to play even one game.

“The World Cup-winning boss was more positive on the chances of Chelsea striker Fernando Torres being included.

“[Torres] has been a regular for us and was one of the key reasons our country reached the elite level,” he said.

“When a team are not doing well, it looks bad for the player. Chelsea are obviously playing much better now, and their players look better.”

Should Villa miss out, Del Bosque has a number of potentially exciting options.

Valencia’s Roberto Soldado has 30 goals this season, including a hat-trick in Spain’s February friendly against Venezuela. Outstanding Athletic Bilbao teenager Iker Muniain made his senior debut in that game.

Puyol’s absence looks a bigger problem. Fellow centre-half Gerard Piqué was dropped recently by Barcelona, while reserve Raúl Albiol has barely played at Real Madrid.

Spain also have concerns in midfield, where Barca’s Xavi Hernandez is currently sidelined with a persistent calf muscle problem.

A bungled schedule is another problem for Del Bosque as he prepares for the finals. The Spanish FA set the Copa del Rey final between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao for May 25, which means at least 12 squad members will miss Spain’s warm-up friendly against Serbia on May 26.

Del Bosque is naming his final squad for the tournament the following morning, leaving little or no time for experiments.

All of which makes Ireland’s preparations — Giovanni Trapattoni named his final squad on Monday and the first get-together is May 17 — look ideal by comparison.

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