Football: Clemente confident of strength in depth

SPAIN'S COACH, Javier Clemente, and his team head into their opening World Cup game against Nigeria in Nantes today on the back of an astonishing record which has left them supremely confident.

But the Spaniards are perennial under-achievers, with a fourth-place finish in 1950 still their best performance in nine previous finals appearances, while they were quarter-finalists in 1986 and 1994.

There is a feeling in the Spanish camp, though, that this may be their year, despite the fact they have been drawn in a tough group with the 1994 semi-finalists, Bulgaria, and Paraguay.

Clemente's record with the Spaniards is remarkable. Since he took over in 1992, his team have lost only three times in 54 matches and qualified for France 98 unbeaten.

Clemente has worked hard to establish a sense of unity in a squad that contains many individual stars. "I've always wanted to put a real team together and I think I've got that right now," he said. "I have the feeling that we have strength in numbers.

"Individuals are important in certain situations, but what is important is that every player knows what is necessary for the good of the team. The current side have a winning mentality. They are born winners."

In Lyons this afternoon South Korea have their best chance to shed the World Cup finals' most unwanted record - 10 matches without a win - when they play their fellow outsiders, Mexico.

The Mexicans' confidence has been hit by a dismal warm-up programme and they face highly motivated opponents who are determined to win their first finals game ahead of the 2002 World Cup, which South Korea is co-hosting with Japan.

"This is our fourth successive World Cup but we have never won a match, so for that reason the game against Mexico is a decisive one for us," said Cho Chung-yun, the general secretary of the South Korean Football Association.

Mexico's coach, Manuel Lapuente, is being guarded following a run of bad results that culminated last month in a 5-2 loss in Norway and a humiliating 4-1 defeat to a German club side, VfL Wolfsburg.

In today's other Group E fixture at the Stade de France, the Dutch, the scorers of 10 goals in their last two games, are up against against a Belgian side thirsting for revenge after their humiliation in the World Cup qualifying competition.

Belgium were beaten twice in qualifiers by their neighbours, whose first- choice front line of Patrick Kluivert, Dennis Bergkamp, when fully fit, and Marc Overmars is probably the most potent at the finals.

A lot of Belgian pride is at stake but their coach, Georges Leekens, insists he is already looking past the Dutch game to Mexico a week later.

"I've always said `Mexico, Mexico, Mexico' ever since the World Cup draw," Leekens said. `If we beat Mexico and South Korea, we qualify for the second round. The rest is just a bonus."

For his part, the Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, is having a hard time convincing an ebullient public back home that his side are not certainties for the second round - and maybe a lot further. He was concerned by a drab 0-0 draw with Cameroon but after two 5-1 wins in subsequent friendlies, over Paraguay and Nigeria, he seems concerned that the mood may have swung too far the other way.

"The Belgians are much cannier, much more cunning," he said - and he is probably right.

The Belgians are also a better side than the one the Dutch beat 3-0 and 3-1 in qualifying. Their defence is likely to be much tighter despite the absence of the man-marker Gordan Vidovic through injury. Up front, the pairing of Fiorentina's Luis Oliveira and PSV Eindhoven's Luc Nilis are fit and in form.

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