Preview: Spain v France (Hanover, 8pm)

Raul feels Spain's time has come to vanquish France
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The Independent Online

In the red corner the vibrant challenger, brimming with belief; in the blue the old champion, staggering on in the heat. On form Spain should plunge French football into another bout of introspection and despair in Hanover tonight but in reality the trans-Pyrenean tie could be a lot closer.

In their opening two matches Spain may have looked one of the best teams in the finals but although their reserves defeated Saudi Arabia in the third game the palsied nature of the performance has slowed their momentum. France, meanwhile, are beginning to show flashes of form. Thierry Henry has scored twice, Patrick Vieira is breaking forward once more, Zinedine Zidane is rested after a suspension and Franck Ribery, Florent Malouda and Eric Abidal have added an injection of youth and pace.

History also favours the 1998 winners. Spain, traditionally collapse in the knock-out stages and have never beaten their opponents in a competitive international. The five meetings have resulted in one draw and four defeats, most recently in Euro 2000 when France won 2-1. Raul missed a last-minute penalty that would have forced extra time. The French went on to win the title. France also beat Spain in the 1984 European Championship final.

Raul was celebrating his seventh birthday that day. Twenty-two years on he hopes to mark his 29th birthday, and 99th cap, by winning a place in the starting line-up. The indications are that he will replace Luis Garcia, largely on his display against Tunisia. His task is to provide Spain with greater inspiration than Zidane does the French.

"It's the first time I'll be celebrating my birthday during a tournament because we are usually out by now," Raul said. "The perfect way to celebrate will be with a win. I want to achieve something big with this team. I think this squad has more quality than any other in recent memory and that's why the coach [Luis Aragones] has adopted a style that is based on having the ball at our feet."

There are other intriguing sub-plots. The Spanish teenager Cesc Fabregas faces Vieira, the World Cup winner he replaced at Highbury, and overshadowed when Arsenal met Juventus in the Champions' League. Another duel brings together Carles Puyol, the Barcelona captain, and Henry, the striker he kept at bay in the Champions' League final.

Henry is again expected to lead the French line ahead of a midfield which, according to their critics, deploys five players to make up for the "elderly" central trio: Zidane, Vieira and Claude Makelele. Willy Sagnol yesterday disputed this. "I really don't believe age will be a deciding factor, but experience might be," he said. "We are not feeling tired." Nevertheless, the French are happy the game is an evening kick-off.

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