The second wave of first round matches is completed this evening as Group H favourites Spain clash with African qualifiers Tunisia at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Stuttgart.
Both sides will enter the game with confidence after their very different opening results last week. Spain thrashed perceived dark horses Ukraine 4-0 in Leipzig last Wednesday, while an injury-time equaliser by Bolton defender Rahdi Jaidi prevented an upset and gave Tunisia an unlikely but crucial point against Saudi Arabia in Munich later in the day. It will be the first meeting between the two nations, in spite of both countries qualifying numerous times for the finals.
Optimism in Spain
The emphatic opening victory in what looked like their most hazardous group match has led to much praise for Spain amongst the international media and similar levels of optimism amongst their fans. Spain have often been disappointing at major tournaments and have never progressed beyond the quarter-final stage of the World Cup, and much is regularly made of the factions between squad members and fans alike.
Veteran coach Luis Aragones remains unbeaten since he took the national team reins after Euro 2004 and he will be hopeful that a successful World Cup campaign can repair much of the damage still left over from the military dictatorship that followed the outbreak of civil war in the 1930s. Post-Franco Spain has had little to unify it since the fascist dictator’s death in 1975. Even the 1992 Olympic Games, held in Barcelona, failed to unite the country’s disjointed and dissenting provinces. The country’s national sport may fare better, however, and a World Cup win for Spain may result in Castilians, Catalans, Basques and Galliceans putting aside their differences for good, enabling them to move on from the pain of the past.
While it can be argued that Spain’s first two goals in the opening win over Ukraine were fortunate, the confident and free flowing football that followed is hard to ignore. Their fourth goal, scored by the coveted Atletico Madrid forward Fermando Torres, has been bettered only by Argentina’s extraordinary second goal in their 6-0 win over Serbia & Montenegro in terms of fluid movement and teamwork. Having successfully navigated the opening clash against the Eastern Europeans with comfort and verve, it has been difficult for the players to keep their focus amid the frenzied wave of optimism that has swept the Spanish media.
“It is difficult after the reaction of the fans and media but we need to be careful not to get carried away as we haven’t achieved anything yet,” warned Luis Garcia, the forward, yesterday afternoon.
“We have some really good players in our squad and have had one good result but we can only afford to focus on Tunisia and not beyond.”
Aragones has a full squad to choose from ahead of this evening’s match and is likely to pick an unchanged team to that which defeated Ukraine. The 67 year-old coach was afforded the luxury of being able to substitute players early in the second-half against the Ukrainians due to the score-line and is therefore almost certain to start with the same eleven players, knowing that a win will guarantee Spain’s presence in the knock-out phase.
This will mean a further stint on the bench for Spain’s all-time record goalscorer, the captain Raul. Aragones’ controversial decision to start with Valencia’s David Villa instead paid dividends, as the Primera Liga’s top scorer weighed in with two goals on his World Cup Finals debut. He will keep his place in the three-pronged attack alongside Garcia and Torres.
The outspoken Aragones has moved quickly and firmly to keep his squad’s soaring confidence in check, claiming that Tunisia will provide a sterner test than Ukraine this evening.
“We’ve got a very difficult game against Tunisia tomorrow,” he said on Sunday.
“They are a better footballing side than Ukraine and I have a lot of respect for them. Above all they have an excellent midfield and two forwards who move very well. They play more technical football, but their slower tempo may suit us better.”
Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos, impressive when played out of position at right-back in the opening win, reinforced his coach’s call for caution.
“Any team can surprise you in this competition and you have to have complete respect for your rivals,” he said.
“We were very surprised that Tunisia drew their opening game. We’re finding out more and more about our opponents and we know that they are a strong unit, as are the Saudis. It won’t be easy.”
Tunisia’s French coach Roger Lemerre was disappointed by the performance of his team against Saudi Arabia. The fancied Tunisians were the better team in the first-half but faded as the game wore on before their last minute equaliser. This makes his assertion that Tunisia will hold a physical edge this evening a curious one.
“Tomorrow’s game will a battle of two different styles,” he said on Sunday.
“Our players are just as good as theirs but, in my eyes, we maybe have the edge over Spain when it comes to physical power and stamina.”
Lemerre also stated that his team would need no motivation for their match against the European giants. He believes that the challenge of playing against some of the most famous players in the world and Tunisia’s need for points will make his team-talk fairly straightforward.
“Playing against such good players in the finals of the World Cup will motivate my players in itself,” he predicted.
“We have to be prepared to push for this together. The expectations are big, so we will need nothing less than 100 per cent from everybody.”
Tunisia were the first African nation to qualify for the finals, travelling to Argentina in 1978. They have yet to reach the second round in three previous attempts and an unlikely victory tonight is required if they are to end their nine-match winless run at the finals, the longest sequence amongst the 2006 qualifiers. To do so they must end a Spanish streak that is far more impressive – 23 matches without defeat under Aragones.
The only injury doubt for Lemerre surrounds their prolific Brazilian-born striker, Francileudo dos Santos. Dos Santos missed the opening draw with Saudi Arabia with a shin injury and is unlikely to take any part in today’s game – even from the bench. Lemerre is therefore likely to keep faith with his starting eleven from last Tuesday, and can at least take comfort that dos Santos’ usual strike partner, Ziad Jaziri of French club Troyes, showed goalscoring form last week with Tunisia’s opening goal.
Depending on what happens in the group’s earlier game today, Ukraine vs Saudi Arabia, Tunisia could either be on the verge of elimination or in pole position for the second phase after tonight’s clash. The importance of today’s match is not lost on Jaidi, who saved his country’s blushes with that towering header at the death in Munich.
“If we want to be part of the second round we have to be focussed and stay calm tomorrow, which we weren’t last week,” the centre-half said on Sunday.
“We can’t play any worse than we did in the second-half against Saudi Arabia. Spain are a great team with some very good players but we are up for this and can make up for the first game. God willing, maybe we will spring the big surprise of the competition so far.”
By Mark Robinson
Spain: Casillas; Sergio Ramos, Puyol, Pablo, Pernia; Senna, Alonso, Xavi; Garcia, Torres, Villa
Tunisia: Boumnijel; Trabelsi, Jaidi, Hagui, Jemmali; Namouchi, Mnari, Chedli, Bouazizi; Jaziri, Chikhaoui
Referee: Carlos Simon (Brazil)