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Dark horses getting lighter

No wonder the Spanish are so fond of duality, of their own yins and yangs, of suns and shades.

You can never quite have the one without the other here, as bullfighting so easily illustrates, but beauty and the beast were well to the fore during Spain's game against Tunisia on Tuesday night.

After the euphoria of the Ukraine result, it only took nine minutes for Tunisia to come along and spill the ink, staining the script.

Luis Aragonés had already announced the team that was to play Saudi in the final game, the squad men looking forward to a run-out from the start against the whipping-boys of Group H, soundly beaten three hours earlier by Ukraine. By half-time, things had taken on a different perspective. On national radio, the commentator was proclaiming that even if Spain were to lose the game, 'No pasa nada!' (It's not a problem). This curious statement ignored the fact that for many, the sudden deflation of Spain's whoopee-cushion was an act of typical inconsistency, the product of complacency or simply of hard luck.

Villa and Alonso had had decent chances, whereas Tunisia had taken their only real chance with aplomb, leaving eighty minutes of potential siege upon their goal.

But Spain couldn't quite get it together, as if the unexpected goal had knocked them off their stride. Thanks to Saudi-in-waiting, a six point total still beckoned, despite the blip - but it was hardly the message that Spain wanted to send out to the bigger fish in waiting, especially given the rare international praise lavished upon them since the Ukraine opener.

The eventual turn-around to secure a fairly satisfactory 3-1 win has only served to whip up the tabloid frenzy here even more, whilst the quality press has retained a milder form of scepticism. The tabloid take on the game is that not only do Spain have quality, fitness, ambitious youth (Fabregas) and revived veterans (Raúl), they also have the ability to 'sufrir' (suffer) and yet still emerge from the tunnel smiling.

The Spanish are big on the virtues of suffering - a word that has different connotations here and which is difficult to translate exactly to English (Protestant) script, but in a sense it is more virtuous to have suffered and won than never to have suffered at all.

In a more prosaic sense, Luis Aragonés simply showed what a clever character he is, hesitating not a jot in bringing on three of his most creative wildcards to replace three safer options, none of whom was actually doing too badly. But by taking off the more defensive Senna and replacing him with Cesc Fabregas, Aragonés was taking a risk - but one which came off to perfection.

Raúl, who scored the equaliser with a poacher's goal, was also part of the high-five feeling in the press, given the altercation between the striker and Aragonés two days earlier. The interesting thing was that Raúl did not immediately take up a striking position, replacing Luis Garcia at half-time rather than David Villa, who was to soon give way to the tricky right-winger Joaquín.

Raúl took up a deep linking position, and seemed to be bolstering the midfield, leaving Torres alone up front once Villa departed the scene. The Real Madrid captain did everything well, and scored a goal out of his old scrapbook, arriving at the right time, from some undefined space that defences find hard to cover.

Could this be the turning-point in Raúl's agonising recent history? It would be ironic if he were to emerge again as the hero, as was his wont before his curious loss of self-belief and confidence. It was also noted here that the first person to whom he made a bee-line was his old chum, goalie Cañizares, another of the senior guard who have come in for criticism from manager Aragonés for their allegedly negative attitude in the training camp.

And what of the 'child' Torres? The BBC were certainly making a lot of him, Gary Lineker concluding their coverage with the rather lame 'Can you hear the drums Fernando?', and Spain's Channel 6 raving about him as if he were the new Di Stéfano. Well - whatever the drumbeat, the Atlético Madrid striker will certainly have done his value no harm with his two goals and a physically powerful performance.

Perhaps the Premier League really does beckon, and Van Nistlerooy's replacement at Old Trafford is more or less decided. In the meantime, Torres merely needs to prove that he can also do the business against cannier defences than that of Tunisia, although his excellent run and strike for the second goal - courtesy of a pass of the highest intelligence from Cesc- were first-rate.

However, the official man-of-the-match went to Xabi Alonso, and quite rightly too. As his first coach here in San Sebastián said of him, at the age of ten in the local club side Antiguoko - 'Hace jugar' (He makes others play). That was a wise comment on a player so young, but Alonso has continued to do just that. Everything he does is measured. Not a pass is made without some intention, not a move is made without prior thought.

Alonso's the type of player who hasn't been spotted for a long time in the English game, perhaps since Glenn Hoddle, but even there the comparison is not entirely accurate, since Alonso can win the ball too. Against Tunisia he not only orchestrated the play, pulling Spain back into shape in the first half when they appeared to have lost the plot, he also made more tackles than Senna, the player who was supposed to be 'protecting' him.

At times against Tunisia, largely because of Alonso and Barça's Xavi, Spain appeared to be trying to hypnotise their opponents, doggedly retaining possession and playing a game of obsessive inter-passing that at times threatened to bore their opponents to death.

But it worked in the end. Spain remained faithful to their philosophy, and despite the impression they may have given of a side who like one touch too many, they are now the team that has had the most shots on goal in the tournament (49) and, until Miroslav Klose's double against Ecuador, they had the top scorer in Torres (3).

They must be doing something right. The key now rests with whom they meet in the next round, favourites being South Korea. Spain want their revenge for the farcical game in the quarter-finals of 2002. One suspects at the moment that they would get it, but France might prove to be sterner stuff, despite their slow start.

Are the dark horses brightening up? It's looking that way. They're even proving popular to the neutrals. I even heard some folks talking animatedly about the team up here in San Sebastián yesterday. Now that is news...


  • Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.

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