Aragones needs a win to warm Spanish hearts

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The Independent Online

The pain in Spain, it seems, diminishes with each successive failure of the national team. If defeat by their neighbours Portugal in the final group match of Euro 2004 prevented the Spaniards matching their usual quarter-final finish at a major event, it was received with a glum sort of resignation.

The pain in Spain, it seems, diminishes with each successive failure of the national team. If defeat by their neighbours Portugal in the final group match of Euro 2004 prevented the Spaniards matching their usual quarter-final finish at a major event, it was received with a glum sort of resignation.

The resignation of the glum sort-of manager, Inaki Saez, duly followed, but reverting once again to a higher-profile, extrovert coach in the 66-year-old Luis Aragones has not led to any great improvement. A first win over England since 1992 would therefore be all the more welcome in Wednesday's friendly at the Bernabeu.

Aragones is a man of passion, whose motivational tactics can go way over the top - as with his disparaging reference to Thierry Henry when talking to Jose Antonio Reyes before last month's World Cup ties against Belgium and Lithuania.

Whatever his countrymen thought of that outburst, they were delighted with the 2-0 victory at home to the Belgians, but were immediately brought back to earth by the goalless draw in Vilnius. Added to a 1-1 draw away to Bosnia-Herzegovina, that has left Spain in third place in a group they should have been running away with.

Last summer, Saez failed to solve the conundrum of how to use Deportivo La Coruña's gifted playmaker Juan Carlos Valeron in conjunction with Raul, who likes to play in a withdrawn role just behind the main striker. With Fernando Morientes starting two games and Atletico's Fernando Torres playing in the crucial final match against Portugal, Spain still managed only two goals in the three games and went out.

Morientes will miss the England game with an ankle injury, the strikers selected being Raul, Reyes, Torres and Deportivo's Alberto Luque. If Raul plays, there will be particular interest, since he has acquired an unwanted reputation as a flat-track bully no longer able to perform against defenders of the highest class.

There was huge controversy - divided along pro- and anti-Madrid lines - when Aragones left him out of the starting XI for the friendly against Scotland in September. Losing at half-time to a limited Scottish side, the coach then summoned his captain, who immediately helped Reyes force a penalty, and took it himself to record a first inter-national goal in seven games. Meanwhile, Michael Owen's scoring run at Real will guarantee him a warm reception on Wednesday.

Prestigious friendly or not, Real supporters will be hoping above all that their local heroes - on both sides - avoid injury before what they regard as a much more important game: their club's visit to Barcelona three days later. Aragones, having picked seven players from the two clubs, has already had to issue a reminder that for him, and the country, Wednesday's match is the one to concentrate on: "In most countries the national team is the most important thing. The players have to understand that when they come here."

Spain squad: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Santiago Canizares (Valencia); Michel Salgado (Real Madrid), Asier del Horno (Bilbao), Carlos Marchena (Valencia), Enrique Romero (Deportivo), Carles Puyol (Barcelona), Pablo Ibanez (Atletico Madrid); Xabi Alonso (Liverpool), Xavi Hernandez (Barcelona), Joaquin Sanchez (Real Betis), Miguel Angel Angulo (Valencia), Ivan Helguera, Guti (both Real Madrid); Jose Antonio Reyes (Arsenal), Albert Luque (Deportivo), Raul (Real Madrid), Fernando Torres (Atletico Madrid).

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