Aragones turns racist questions back on England

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The Independent Football

It may be only a friendly international, but when Luis Aragones is around you can usually guarantee that the sparks will fly. Spain's veteran manager - who was at the centre of controversy last month when he made racist remarks about Thierry Henry - was at it again yesterday as he prepared for tonight's match here against England.

It may be only a friendly international, but when Luis Aragones is around you can guarantee that the sparks will fly. Spain's veteran manager ­ who was at the centre of controversy last month when he made racist remarks about Thierry Henry ­ was at it again yesterday as he prepared for tonight's match here against England.

When asked by English journalists about the Henry incident, in which he called the Arsenal striker a "black shit" while trying to motivate his club colleague Jose Antonio Reyes in a Spain training session, Aragones decided to remind his inquisitors of their country's colonial past. "I know who is racist," Aragones said. "I remember the colonies. There are people who ran after them like wolves after prey."

Insisting that his conscience was clear, Aragones added: "My job has made me adapt to every city or area where I have lived. I have a lot of black friends."

Although the Spanish federation formally apologised to Arsenal, Aragones has not made a personal apology to Henry. He explained: "I have not said anything to Thierry Henry and he knows what it is to motivate a person. Reyes spoke to him about what happened and I consider him as anyone such as Samuel Eto'o [Barcelona's Cameroonian striker, who played under Aragones in Mallorca]. I don't want to talk about that any more. We have common friends. I have apologised publicly."

The England players made their feelings clear by wearing anti-racism T-shirts at last night's training session. While Aragones said he "didn't know if it was the right response", his England counterpart, Sven Goran Eriksson, described it as "a very good idea" and had approved of the plan.

Undermining Aragones' remarks were events in England's Under-21 1-0 defeat by Spain last night, where Carlton Cole, Darren Bent and Glen Johnson appeared to be subjected to monkey chants from the crowd.

Earlier, Eriksson refused to comment on Aragones' original remarks but stressed his own opposition to racism. When asked if he thought he would have been dismissed if he had made similar comments, Eriksson replied: "I wouldn't recognise myself if I said that. I can't answer that question because I would never say that."

Aragones, who took over as national manager at the third time of asking in the summer, has managed eight different Spanish clubs and is notorious for his outspoken comments. He told one player he was "even more rubbish than your prostitute mother" and said to another: "You couldn't trap a bloody landmine, but it would be better for your career if you tried." He told an angry fan that he was "uglier than two horses", while one heated confrontation with Eto'o ended with Aragones' false teeth flying out of his mouth.

It remains to be seen whether Aragones' comments will have awakened the Madrid public's interest in tonight's game. Even with seats at as little as ¤10 (£7), there were few takers at the box office yesterday. It is expected that thousands of tickets will be given away today in the hope of attracting a reasonable crowd to the 80,000-capacity Bernabeu Stadium.

The first 11 pages of Marca, one of Spain's leading daily sports newspapers, were devoted yesterday to the game that really matters here: this weekend's meeting between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Tonight's encounter merited just a single page.

Both countries, however, are likely to field their strongest line-ups. Eriksson's only unforced change from last month's World Cup qualifiers is likely to see Jermain Defoe relegated to the substitutes' bench as he reverts from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2. Wayne Rooney took a brief break from last night's training session to have his right ankle strapped but then resumed practice.

Wayne Bridge is available again after injury and Eriksson will be particularly keen to re-establish the Chelsea defender on the left flank in front of Ashley Cole. With Steven Gerrard still unfit, Nicky Butt and Frank Lampard are expected to line up in the centre of midfield, while John Terry will replace the injured Sol Campbell in defence.

In the past Eriksson has used friendlies to give a run-out to as many players as possible, but new rules from Fifa, the sport's world governing body, prevent coaches from using more than six substitutes in a match. Jermaine Jenas, who impressed when he deputised for David Beckham in Azerbaijan last month, Defoe and Shaun Wright-Phillips can be expected to be among those summoned from the bench at some stage.

Beckham returns to the side after proving his fitness following a rib injury by playing for 90 minutes for Real Madrid on Sunday. Like Owen, the England captain will be particularly keen to impress in front of his home crowd and against several of his club colleagues.

Spain's weakness could be in defence after Real Madrid's Ivan Helguera and Barcelona's Carles Puyol pulled out with injury. Liverpool's Xabi Alonso will be at the centre of a strong midfield, while Atletico Madrid's Fernando Torres ­ compared by Eriksson yesterday to the great Dutchman Marco van Basten ­ is likely to partner Raul, the local hero, in attack.

Reyes is set to renew his rivalry with the Manchester United defenders Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand after last month's Premiership match at Old Trafford, when the Spaniard was on the receiving end of several crunching tackles as Arsenal's 49-match unbeaten record was closed. Reyes, who said United were "a bit dirty" in the match, added: "They are not going to give anything away. I have to face them again and if they kick me then I will pick myself up and get on with it."

The match is the 20th meeting between the two countries, England having won 11 and Spain five. They last met at Villa Park in a friendly three years ago, when England won their first match under Eriksson 3-0. It is 17 years since England last played at the Bernabeu, when they won 4-2 in a friendly, Gary Lineker scoring four times. England's first defeat against any continental team was a 4-3 loss in their first match against Spain in Madrid in 1929.

Although the goals may not flow quite as freely tonight, there is plenty of attacking firepower on display. Do not expect a goalless draw.

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