Spain 3 Tunisia 1: Raul strike and Torres double see off Tunisia

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The Independent Football

After 35 minutes of another riveting game last night, the cheers for each touch of the ball were of the Tunisian variety, Jaouhar Mnari's early goal having threatened a first defeat for any of this World Cup's truly fancied contenders.

But Spain emphasised their right to be considered in that category by fighting back with an irresistible combination of skill and vigour for a victory in which Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas, a half-time substitute, played a monumental part.

After making an outstanding impression in their opening 4-0 victory over Ukraine, the perennial under-achievers have qualified from Group H, are virtually certain to win it and look good for a fifth quarter-final in seven tournaments. The hard part would be beating Brazil there to make the last four for the first time since 1950.

It is now 24 games unbeaten since the misery of defeat by Portugal at Euro 2004 and the appointment of the controversial veteran coach Luis Aragones.

He played his part here too, making two changes at the interval, a third within the next 10 minutes, and then seeing all three new players combine for an equaliser. Raul scored it and Fernando Torres added two more, the first from a peach of a pass by Fabregas.

"Raul and Fabregas's interpretation of our play was extraordinary," Aragones said. "Raul's goal gave us the spirit to make a comeback while Fabregas directed the team to play our game."

Torres, the Atletico Madrid striker, tall and swift, could have scored four in the final 15 minutes and three in the last six, which would have given him the fastest hat-trick in the tournament's history. He has to be content with a place this morning as leading scorer.

Aragones will rest first-choice players for the third group game against Saudi Arabia on Friday. "The team will be completely different," he said. "I need to allow my players to recover after their incredible effort."

Fabregas, anyway, may have changed the notion of exactly which players are first pick.

Liverpool's Luis Garcia was one of those sent into the showers at half-time. His club-mate Xabi Alonso was again outstanding, however, dropping deep to collect the ball and firing off passes to all points of the pitch.

Garcia had inadvertently contributed to the goal by which Spain fell behind in their opponents' first surge forward. His poor touch allowed Zaid Jaziri to shrug off Carles Puyol down the right and cross cleverly to Mnari, whose first shot was blocked by Iker Casillas but fell neatly for him to bang in the rebound.

Yet Spain continued to play their football as a heavy shower freshened the atmosphere and playing surface, after which only Anis Ayari's goal-line clearance from Alonso's header prevented an equaliser.

A pensive Aragones emerged from the dressing-room for the second half having decided upon two changes. Raul came into Luis Garcia's position and Fabregas replaced the ineffective Marcos Senna.

The Arsenal youngster immediately had a fierce drive saved by Ali Boumnijel, but Aragones was not satisfied and made his third substitution as early as the 55th minute. This time Joaquin, the Real Betis winger, was brought on to provide proper width down the right. Although risky, the strategy paid off handsomely. In the 72nd minute, Joaquin waited patiently before delivering a low cross that Fabregas hit at goal, Boumnijel making a one-handed save only to be beaten as the ball fell to Raul.

Four minutes later Fabregas played a wonderful pass from halfway into the inside-left channel for Torres to run on to and score after eluding the goalkeeper.

The striker was soon foiled in an identical situation from another Fabregas pass, then converted a penalty after being pushed by Alaeddine Yahia.

Tunisia, left demoralised, must now beat Ukraine on Friday to qualify with their tormentors.