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Rocky road to Portugal

Time out from the league this week and a chance to focus on the fortunes of the national side.

Since Spain are not used to being involved in the play-offs for major competitions, this is maybe one of the reasons for the curious word they apply to these occasions - 'la repesca' (the re-fish) - which I suppose means that you chuck the fish back and start the angling competition anew, or something like that.

Whatever - the Spanish don't like being thrown back in with the minnows, despite the fact that they were swimming in perfectly good company with the likes of Holland, Russia and Turkey - rather more substantial fish than Spain's rather condescending attitude implies.

Their opponents were not exactly of the minnow variety either. Norway, who defeated Spain 1-0 in the last European Championships in 2000, are the sort of side that the Spanish traditionally fear.

Although they know that footballer for footballer they are massively superior, the physical strength and defensive discipline of a side like Norway always intimidates them, and puts them off their stride. Teams who come to play football against Spain may or may not come away with a result, but they are preferred to the sides who come to make a virtue out of their wholly defensive strategy.

Add to that the fact that Solskjaer and Carew, technically their two best players, were both missing from the squad, and it was obvious that Spain would be confronted by a white wall of healthy hulking Vikings.

The pre-match auguries were not good. The press made a lot out of the fact that Graham Poll, the English referee, is allegedly despised by his fellow countrymen to the extent that they are only happy when he is sent from the shores by FIFA to annoy other sets of foreigners.

Poll also has a record of controversial performances against Spanish sides, famously telling Marca the day after he had booked 13 players in a UEFA Cup tie between Real Sociedad and Atlético Madrid that the players had been 'a bit stupid'.

There were those who thought that the adjective applied to someone else other than the players, who had largely behaved themselves. But much to the press' chagrin this time, Poll refereed the game well, allowed it to flow, and looked light years' ahead of any of his Spanish colleagues who make a cock-up of the simplest matters, week in week out.

If he is the worst in England, then someone should seriously send over the inspectors to have a look at the woeful scene in Spain.

The game was played at 22.00 - another ridiculous piece of gamesmanship by the organisers. It may be true that the Spanish, notorious night-birds that they are, really think that the rest of Europe stays up so late to engage in sporting combat, but there is not much excuse for putting the game on at such an hour.

Much was made of the fact that 4,000 cheap tickets had been reserved for kids at Valencia's Mestalla stadium, but I just found it depressing that no-one questioned the fact that so many young children would be up until the early hours of the morning. Oh well - todo por la patria and all that. A few bleary-eyed kids on Sunday morning is valid sacrifice for getting the national team on the rocky road to Portugal.

Indeed, Frode Olsen, the ex-Sevilla goalkeeper, was trundled out by the Spanish press and asked what he thought of Norway's prospects. Olsen came straight to the point about the kick-off time, complaining that by 10 p.m. he was usually in bed 'with his wife'. Well at least it was with his wife, but the papers got the point.

Taking the domestic scene a little further, Iñaki Sáez, Spain's beleaguered manager, was sadly unable to attend his son Igor's wedding in Bilbao on Saturday evening because he was down in Valencia fulfilling the terms of his contract to manage the national team.

Iversen: Wants to stay in England.
Iversen: Wants to stay in England.

Whilst various commentators expressed sympathy with Sáez for missing out on his son's big day, others implied that his lack of foresight in helping to plan the date for the wedding was similar to his obvious lack of organisational strategy when it came to the football.

Enrique Martín wrote ironically that he may have been missed in Bilbao (the wedding was at 19.00 and the reception began smack on 22.00) but that if he had not turned up in Valencia, few would have lamented his absence.

Sáez had actually cocked things up because last year, when his son had been juggling dates for the wedding, dad had allegedly laughed off his son's point about 'And what if we don't qualify automatically dad?'

'Nonsense' joked pa. 'November 15th is just fine!' But now that poor Iñaki has missed out on the wedding, he might be able to make up for it by spending June with the family instead of in Portugal - especially if the purveyors of doom are proved right and Spain slide (literally) to defeat in the frosts of Oslo on Wednesday.

Sáez is a nice bloke, but has always been regarded as a stop-gap, especially since his major achievements have been as a coach of Spain's junior sides. The feeling that he is out of his depth at senior level may well be right.

The 2-1 win in Valencia may not be enough, and despite the fact that most neutrals would surely prefer a side like Spain to make it to Portugal, football is a broad church in whose pews Norway are perfectly justified to sit.

As various commentators pointed out about Spain - it's one thing to have one of the best squads in Europe but quite another to organise them tactically so that they function as a unit.

Not one of Norway's players would have even made the Spanish bench, but Nils Semb coaxed a rugged and intelligent performance from them, topped by an amazing display from Rosenborg's goalkeeper, Espen Johnsen.

Spain had a total of 42 shots on target, as opposed to 4 from Norway, and had 79% of the possession, but the overall impression was of a nervy, precipitous side, running up and over the trenches into action without a great deal of thought.

At the back, Spain's organisation was poor, as evidenced by Norway's opener after 13 minutes, scored by Steffen Iversen (who scored back in 2000) after Marchena had slipped and given him the space to latch onto a knock-on.

For all Spain's territorial dominance, the three other occasions on which Norway threatened seemed more dangerous incursions than the majority of the Spanish ones. Only when Valerón and Joaquín belatedly entered the fray did Spain really begin to make their class tell.

The Lord only knows why Sáez paired Albelda with Baraja in midfield, giving it a combative but less than creative look.

Inaki Saez: Resting his stars
Inaki Saez: Resting his stars

Hindsight is a many-splendoured thing, but surely for a game against such ultra-defensive opponents, it would have been more logical to have paired Baraja with the excellent Valerón or even Xabi Alonso - players whose game is designed to unlock defences of the stubborn variety?

Not to mention that curious fact that Rangers' Mikel Arteta, now clearly a player of senior stature, was wasting his time in Sweden the night before in the Under-21 fixture. And Carles Puyol, an excellent centre-back with Barcelona, continues to play like a headless but enthusiastic chicken at left-back, where he is surely wasted.

It would be a massive shame if Spain were not to qualify for Portugal, if only for the astonishing riches that they have in midfield and on the flanks.

Out on the left, the one thing that Sáez did get right was his choice of José Antonio Reyes, the new kid on the block from Sevilla and the new star to emerge from this year's national collection. Despite the dodgy white boots he really looks the part, wonderfully skilful, crafty and intelligent. One hopes they can sneak a result in Oslo, but it's looking distinctly touch and go.

  • Read White Storm, Phil's brilliant book on Real Madrid. Also available, his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.
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