Spain endure the heat of another Aragones lecture

Angry old manager determined that a reputation for underachievement will end soon
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The Independent Football

As Luis Aragones sat in the dug-out at the Fritz-Walter-Stadion here on Friday he once again looked more like the angry old man of Spanish football rather than its saviour.

His face was getting progressively redder - and not just because of the relentless heat of the mid-afternoon sun. Before him his young charges, albeit a completely different XI than had won the first two Group H matches and featuring seven players making their World Cup debuts, were struggling to dominate Saudi Arabia.

They failed to take their chances, lost their way and ended up having to hold on to a single-goal lead. It felt a bit like the Spain of old. The anxious, fretful Spain. The Spain before Aragones took over two years and 22 unbeaten matches ago. Afterwards, the 67-year-old who had five separate spells as the coach of Atletico Madrid, the club where he made his name as a powerful, goalscoring midfielder, did not hold back.

He dismissed his players' complaints about the heat - "That's not an excuse" - attacked their inability to hold on to the ball and talked of the "negative" conclusions he could draw from the encounter. Few, if any, can expect to start when Spain meet France in Hanover on Tuesday evening.

That is probably bad news for the captain, Raul, in particular. The golden boy of Spanish football, who now looks more like a burn-out victim, has been usurped; Aragones has shown a steel, to go along with his abrupt, often rude manner, in finally shaping La Seleccion into a force to be reckoned with.

It may have happened slightly by default - even going into this tournament it was unclear how Spain would play and who exactly would play - but Aragones's address to his squad when they gathered at their training camp in Madrid last month before setting off for Germany rang out loud and clear. "Gentlemen," he is said to have told the players. "The legend ends here. This time we will get further."

The "legend" is Spain's inability to go beyond the quarter-finals of a World Cup. They reached the last four once but that was when the format, in 1950, was that of a mini-league - and the Spanish finished bottom. Other than that it has been the quarters and no further - in 1986, 1994 and 2002.

It has had a paralysing effect. But, again, on Friday Aragones, most infamously known in England for his racist remark about Thierry Henry, was forthright. "It is our time to shine," he said when asked how far his country could go in Germany. "It is our event. Four years ago we were a different team, a different story. This is our time and we hope that we can continue winning."

The emergence of a host of players has fed his belief. Suddenly Xabi Alonso, Luis Garcia, Cesc Fabregas and, of course, Fernando Torres and David Villa have given Aragones options. There is also growing evidence that the experience gathered by the first trio - plus Jose Antonio Reyes - in the Premiership has hardened the squad and provided a worldliness that the traditionally La Liga-dominated team previously lacked. It has also diluted the Barcelona versus Real Madrid split.

Aragones is particularly pleased with his midfield. "It is hard for our midfield to lose the ball," he said admiringly of the work put in so far by Alonso, Xavi and Marcos Senna. And by Fabregas. The Arsenal teenager, just turned 19, will be forever "Cesc" in Spain. But he is becoming increasingly influential for his country, and transformed the tie against Tunisia with his forceful second-half display by creating their first two goals.

"Staging a comeback in a World Cup match is just fantastic," Fabregas said. "It shows how determined we are. We never lost faith and we knew that a win would take us into the last 16." His career is such a whirlwind that Fabregas admitted that he has "barely had time to think" while at the tournament. But he is already being tipped as a contender for the best young player award.

Fabregas knew who he wanted to avoid in the last 16. "I haven't spoken to [Thierry] Henry since just after the Champions' League final and I hope I don't come across him again until much later in the tournament," he said.

Hours later France did indeed finish second in Group G and the tie was set. Meeting them was not the greatest reward for Spain achieving a maximum haul of nine points and the best record of all the group winners.

Nevertheless, Fabregas rem-ained bullish - "They are the ones who should worry," he added - while Reyes was equally strident. "It's down to us to prove what we can do," the winger said. "We have a winning mentality and we have proved it so far in the group stages. We don't fear any rivals." Another win and suddenly Spain really will believe.