The first meeting between FIFA World Cup Group H leaders Spain and Saudi Arabia kicks off this afternoon in Kaiserslauten on what is the final day of the group stages.
The number of teams remaining in the competition will be cut in half this evening as the draw for the first knockout round is completed. Saudi fans will be clinging the vain hope that they can be part of that draw, but the reality is that the ‘Sons of the Desert’ must beat their in-form rivals by four clear goals to stand any chance of progressing. Such a result would be one of the biggest shocks in the 76-year history of the World Cup Finals.
One thing in Saudi coach Marcos Paqueta’s favour is Spain’s likely line-up for this afternoon’s game, which will probably contain a host of reserves. Spain’s veteran coach Luis Aragones is widely tipped to make wholesale changes to the team that came from behind to beat Tunisia 3-1 on Monday. He will be keen to keep his first-choice players fresh for next week’s second round match and will also want to give valuable playing time to those members of his squad that have not featured thus far.
Despite being a yellow card away from missing the second round match, one player likely to take a starting place this afternoon is Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas. The 18 year-old was brought on for the second half against Tunisia and was widely credited in the Spanish press as being the spark that helped to turn around the match for the Spaniards. His parried long-range drive led to Raul’s equaliser, and a few minutes later his exquisite through ball put in Fernando Torres for Spain second goal.
“There’s no better feeling in the world for me than setting up a goal,” he said on Wednesday.
“I’m delighted with what I achieved, but more pleased that the team were able to secure the win. Staging a comeback is very important for morale and it shows how determined we are. I feel very comfortable playing in our 4-3-3 system as it is virtually identical to the system we used at Arsenal last season in the Champions League.”
Another player determined to make an impact in a revamped Spanish midfield is the young Barcelona playmaker Andres Iniesta. Iniesta has been part of the Catalan club since the age of twelve, and made his first team debut as a 17 year-old in 2002. He has been highly rated by several Barcelona coaches, all of whom have brought him along patiently. Current boss Frank Rijkaard showed the faith that he has in Iniesta by giving him his longest run in the team to date after club-mate Xavi, who stared the first two finals games in midfield for Spain, suffered a long-term knee injury in December 2005. Iniesta’s consistency was one of the features of a Barcelona team that secured the Champions League and Primera Liga titles in the second half of last season.
“I cannot wait to make my World Cup debut,” the enthusiastic Iniesta revealed on Thursday.
“I hope everything goes well and, more importantly, that I can contribute to Spain’s third consecutive victory. I can play in any of the three midfield positions. All I want to prove is that the coach can rely on me whenever I am needed.
The Spanish media are predicting that Aragones, who is looking to extend his unbeaten streak as Spain coach to an impressive 25 matches, will make as many as eleven changes this afternoon. This means that squad captain and record goalscorer Raul is likely to come in for Fernando Torres as the central striker. Torres will undoubtedly be disappointed, as his early form has made him a leading contender for the golden boot. In his absence Raul can become Spain’s all-time record scorer at the finals. He is currently tied with Fernando Hierro, Fernando Morientes and Emilio Butragueno on five goals.
Saudis on the brink
Anything other than a comprehensive victory for Saudi Arabia will result in their elimination and Paqueta is ready to recall his captain and leading scorer, Sami Al Jaber, to the staring line-up today to provide a goal threat. Al Jaber, who scored a late goal in the opening 2-2 draw with Tunisia, has so far only featured as a substitute at the finals as a result of injury but will be given the go-ahead to start this afternoon as Saudi Arabia look to secure a massive upset.
Saudi Arabia are among nine countries who have qualified for the last four finals but are without a victory since a 1-0 win over Belgium in 1994. Their winless streak now stretches to nine games and this, combined with the impressive form of the Spaniards in the competition thus far, makes their task this afternoon an enormous one.
Paqueta will have been dismayed by his team’s performance in their 4-0 defeat by Ukraine on Monday. Saudi Arabia had shown flashes of pace, flair and teamwork in their opening draw with Tunisia but were comprehensively outplayed by the eastern Europeans in Hamburg.
Their coach will be looking to use Ukraine’s performance in that victory as motivation for his own players. The Ukrainians entered the match on the back of a 4-0 reverse by Spain but showed a willingness to work and a togetherness that proved inspiring. Paqueta will be looking for the same from his team this afternoon.
“I have told my players to use Ukraine as an example,” he said on Wednesday.
“They lost 4-0 against Spain and then came back to beat us 4-0. We see hope in that and I never give up. There is always hope and we will try our best. The players will fight all the way. We knew we had two difficult games against Spain and Ukraine but in life you have to be positive and retain hope right until the end.”
“The most important thing is that my players showed they were committed, and they have eliminated the horrible image of the last World Cup and that 8-0 defeat to Germany.”
By Mark Robinson
Spain: Canizares; Salgado, Juanito, Marchena, Lopez; Iniesta, Albelda, Fabregas; Joaquin, Raul, Reyes
Saudi Arabia: Al Deayea; Dokhi, Sulaimani, Al Montashari, Tuker; Al Khariri, Al Ghamdi, Noor, Al Thaker; Al Jaber, Al Qahtani
Referee:: Coffi Codjia (Benin)