- Associated Press - Monday, June 20, 2016

SAINT-MARTIN-DE-RE, France (AP) - Spain’s often overlooked defense still has an important role to play at the European Championship.

The offense and its unique possession game gets most of the credit for the team’s success, but the defense carries the load so the talented midfielders can impress up front.

Spain enters Tuesday’s final Group D game against Croatia trying to defend a 14-game unbeaten run at the European Championship. It also has a seven-game streak without conceding a goal, going back to its opening match in the 2012 tournament.

The defense has also helped by scoring an important goal in the opening match against the Czech Republic, when central defender Gerard Pique came through with a late header after the strikers had struggled to find the net.

“We look like a very offensive team but we have a very well organized structure in the back,” Pique said Monday. “We have very good players who have allowed us to keep playing at this high level in the last few tournaments, with the exception of the World Cup in Brazil.”

Spain hasn’t been defeated at the European Championship since a 1-0 loss to Portugal in the 2004 tournament. The last time it conceded a goal was in a 1-1 draw with Italy in its first match in 2012. It’s has gone 689 minutes without conceding a goal, which is the tournament’s longest run ever.

“We have been playing at a very high level on defense,” Spain full back Cezar Azpilicueta said. “It’s important we continue like this because it gives more confidence to the players up front. It gives them more freedom to create plays on offense.”

Pique and Sergio Ramos have been at the forefront of the Spanish defense for the past several years. Both were in the team that won Euro 2012 and the 2010 World Cup. Spain conceded only one goal in 2012 and two at the World Cup in South Africa two years earlier.

Ramos, the team’s captain, was also in the squad that won Euro 2008, although he played as a right back in a team that had Carles Puyol and Carlos Marchena in the middle of the defense.

In France, Juanfran Torres is playing right back and Jordi Alba is at left back.

“Ramos is a reference to us both on and off the field,” Alba said. “He is an example to us all.”

In Spain’s 3-0 win over Turkey last week, Ramos became the field player with the most appearances with the Spanish national team, with 134.

Ramos and Pique carry a rivalry from club soccer in Spain, as Ramos plays for Real Madrid and Pique for Barcelona, but they have bonded to try to overcome the debacle of two years ago at the 2014 World Cup. The defenders were starters when Spain failed to advance past the group stage after conceding seven goals in three games, including five in the opener against the Netherlands.

“We are playing for a country. It’s what unites us,” Ramos said. “It makes no difference what club we play for. We will give our best to try to make our country happy.”


Tales Azzoni on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tazzoni. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/tales-azzoni

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