LONDON - It used to be that the only thing to expect from Spain at major tournaments was that it would fall short of expectations.
These days, that would mean anything short of bringing home the title.
Having gone from perennial underachiever to the top of world football, Spain will be the team with the biggest target on its back at the European Championship.
"Our problem now is that we are not arriving to the final phase of the Euros like we did four years ago," Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas said. "Then, the other teams knew us but we surprised people little by little until we deservedly won the tournament. Now, all the other national teams know how Spain plays and they are going to make it tough for us."
And there's no shortage of challengers hoping to knock the defending champions off their perch.
The Netherlands may again prove to be the biggest obstacle, bringing back most of the team that lost to Spain in extra time in the 2010 World Cup final. But the other usual suspects are credible contenders as well, with Germany, Italy, France, Portugal and England all bringing strong teams to Poland and Ukraine for the June 8-July 1 tournament.
And, since this is the Euros, no team can really be discounted off hand — as Greece showed in 2004 and Denmark did in 1992.
But until anyone proves otherwise, Spain is still the team to beat.
Having built a reputation as a country that always came up short in major tournaments, Spain finally managed to ride its attack-minded style of football all the way to the title at Euro 2008, then followed it up by winning the World Cup two years later.
This time they are without injured striker David Villa — who played a key role in both those title runs — but still have a wealth of talent led by Barcelona midfield duo Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. If Fernando Torres can rediscover his scoring form, Spain has every chance of continuing its modern dynasty and becoming the first team to defend its European title.
"We believe we have a great generation of players," Xavi said. "The whole world is keeping an eye on the team and there is a certain pressure, but a good one."
That also means there's less pressure on every other team, which they seem to view as a good thing as well.
One common theme in the pre-tournament talk is that many of the traditional powers are trying to set themselves up as underdogs.
"The Italy team is not going there as one of the favourites to win the European Championship," said Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, whose team faces Spain, Ireland and Croatia in Group C. "But I like to say that Italians know how to surprise."
France midfielder Samir Nasri was even more modest, saying his team may struggle even to advance from Group D, where it will face England, Sweden and co-host Ukraine. France is one of the biggest question marks of the tournament but is eager to make up for a disastrous 2010 World Cup, where it failed to win a game and imploded among infighting.
"We're a young team lacking in experience, so we're not favourite in the group," Nasri said. "France hasn't played well in an international competition since 2006."
The Germans, at least, are willing to say they're ready to take on Spain, which it lost to in the World Cup semifinals in South Africa.
"The Spaniards have a strong team, but we've gotten closer. We've gotten better," Germany midfielder Mesut Oezil said. "Our goal is to win the title."
To do that, Germany first has to get out of the toughest group of the tournament, having been drawn with the Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark — all four of which are ranked in the top 10 by FIFA.
"We're all aware how difficult our group is," said Portugal coach Paul Bento, who will rely on Cristiano Ronaldo to guide the team through the opening round.
The Dutch are expected to bring back 10 members of the starting lineup from the World Cup final, including creative quartet Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Rafael van der Vaart.
That means the Oranje are likely to stay true to their high-scoring, entertaining style of football — regardless of the opposition.
"You have to find the right balance, and (coach Bert Van Marwijk) wants to go back to what we had at the World Cup," Netherlands midfielder Nigel De Jong said.
Euro 2012 kicks off on June 8 with co-host Poland playing Greece in Group A, which also includes Russia and the Czech Republic and is seen by many as the weakest in the tournament without any top contenders.
Of course, Greece knows better than most how to spring a surprise.
"Greeks have a passion for football and I know my players will be determined," Greece coach Fernando Santos said. "We have some problems but that's no excuse. We are not going for a holiday."