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Nobody here doubts Ronaldo - Carvajal

Real Madrid

Expecting the expected exit

How many times do you have to underachieve before you become, simply, a failure? It is a question needing to be asked when considering Spain's chances this summer. Call them dark horses, call them unlucky; one thing they cannot be labelled is a World Cup success story.

It is a familiar tale. A nation that boasts the best domestic league in the world and individual talents that decorate Europe's finest teams simply can't cut it at international football's top table.

They always qualify - Germany 2006 will be their 8th finals appearance in a row - they always promise much, they always disappoint.

Since Spain's only notable international success, the 1964 European Championship title, their club sides have won 15 major European honours. The UEFA Cup and Champions League trophies both currently reside in Spanish trophy cabinets.

The two sides who contested this year's Champions League final provide 5 players to the squad; last year's winners a further 3.

Yet nothing better than a quarter-final finish has ever been achieved at the World Cup. So why should this year be any different?

In truth it probably won't, but not, perhaps, due to the back-breaking weight of history or through the crippling fear that dogs them after decades of perennial heartbreak. The draw has, in a very perverse way, been unkind to a country with such a fragile psychological state when it comes to knock-out stages.

All of Spain licked its lips and rubbed its hands together when placed in a group with World Cup debutants Ukraine, Tunisia and whipping boys Saudi Arabia. At last, some luck. Could this be the footballing gods evening things up after last year's scandalous exit at the hands of hosts South Korea?

In the quarter-final then - their traditional exit round of choice - Spain outplayed the hard working Koreans and had two legitimate goals struck off by referee Gamal Gandour, one a golden-goal winner, and went on to lose on penalties.

This time, if results go to form, the Spanish should have little trouble topping one of the weakest groups to set up a probable last 16 tie with Switzerland, no mugs but nothing to fear.

Following the form book further, however, reveals favourites Brazil as likely quarter-final opposition. How do you say 'Groundhog Day' in Spanish?

Perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. In qualifying, Spain's task looked a straightforward one, too, with only Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia & Montenegro to pose any sort of threat. Yet 5 draws, 2 against the Bosnians and, decisively, away in Lithuania, meant a play-off was required against Slovakia.

A resounding 5-1 victory in the home leg, thanks to a Luis Garcia hat-trick, restored pride and belief as well as turning the away leg into little more than a pressure free team bonding holiday.

So, easy groups can be made hard work of. In France in 1998 Spain were expected to ease past Nigeria, Paraguay and Bulgaria yet came up short. Portentously, the third game saw a 6-1 drubbing of Bulgaria, the weakest team in the group, that was, if not too little, then certainly too late.

In Germany it is Saudi Arabia who figure third on the fixture list. Spain will need to make sure of a good result against the Ukrainians in their opener, as well as guard against complacency when experienced World Cup participants Tunisia provide the next opposition. A cakewalk against the Saudis could otherwise prove meaningless.

As ever, Spain have the personnel capable of ending a cycle of underachievement.

In Iker Casillas Spain have a goalkeeper of true class who, despite his relative youth at the age of 25, seems to have been around forever. A huge, commanding figure, Casillas, after overcoming a fear of high crosses, appears to have no obvious weaknesses.

A settled back four in front of him also helps. Barcelona caveman centre-back Carles Puyol leads by example, with Pablo Ibanez and Antonio Lopez guarding the left side with an understanding born of a club relationship forged at Atletico Madrid, while Sergio Ramos, from Madrid's other team, plays at right-back.

Carlos Machena, Michel Salgado and Juanito Gutierrez, coming off an impressive season with Real Betis, offer able replacements though Asier Del Horno's troubled time at Chelsea means, should Lopez need replacing, a chink in the armour may be on show.

These four have survived much of eccentric/outspoken/controversial/racist (delete as applicable) coach Luis Aragones's ever-changing formations and player rotations.

Many in Spain are still unclear as to the best starting eleven - and claim Aragones himself is even less sure - but since he took charge in the summer of 2004 the team has yet to taste defeat meaning he retains an uneasy support back home.

His main corridor of uncertainty appears to be across the front. Only three out-and-out strikers have been selected, though there are plenty of attacking options in midfield.

Raul, despite another poor season at Real Madrid, appears untouchable up front and while Atletico Madrid's Fernando Torres has flattered to deceive since his debut at Euro 2004 he boasts undoubted, if latent, talent whilst David Villa was the highest scoring Spanish player in La Liga for Valencia, a team famed more for its parsimonious defence.

The 21-year-old Torres, dubbed El Nino - the child - due to his precocity, could be a big star at these finals. The mobile front man scored Spain's winner in the final of both the 2001 Uefa U-16 Championship and the 2002 U-19 event, a tournament where he also claimed the golden boot. Responsible for 7 of Spain's 19 goals in qualifying he is seem an obvious starter but is yet to dovetail positionally with Raul.

One alternative would be to drop the misfiring Madrid legend and bring in Villa alongside Torres to form a youthful and energetic partnership, but such is Raul's status within Spanish football it would be an act of unprecedented bravery bordering on treason from Aragones.

Another would be to play all three with Raul operating as a link man in an attacking trident of real menace. More likely, from the outset at least, will be a midfield heavy formation with Raul performing that task with Torres or Villa leading the line alone.

David Albelda and Marcos Senna offer muscle in midfield whilst Liverpool's Xabi Alonso and the Barcelona pair of Andres Iniesta and Xabi vie for the creative berths in the centre.

The absence of Valencia's Vincente reduces options out wide but the pace and attacking zeal of Jose Antonio Reyes, Luis Garcia and Joaquin will have slow-legged or dull-witted defenders quaking.

An easy passage to the quarters followed by elimination at the hands of Brazil; a struggle through the group and a different route; even a first round elimination - all are possible for this most enigmatic of European heavyweights.

As ever, it is difficult to resist predicting that, this time, finally they will come good, but the impulse is tempered by the historical evidence that they won't.

That things will be different this year is the wishful mantra of any Spanish fan when a World Cup rolls around. Though it becomes ever harder to find one who can say it like they really mean it.