Spain remain grounded in campaign to reach summit

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The Independent Football

Many are the teams who have peaked too soon and rolled all the way back down the World Cup mountain. So while sub-editors in Spain were typing headlines about being the best side in the tournament following the admittedly impressive 4-0 victory over Ukraine last Wednesday, it is just as well that Luis Aragones and his players appear to keeping matters in perspective.

"We had a good game against Ukraine but we can't afford to get carried away," said Cesc Fabregas, the young Arsenal midfielder, whose maturity off the field matches his precociousness on it. "We've done nothing so far, we've just played one good game," concurred one of the goalscorers, Atletico Madrid's bright new star, Fernando Torres. "We have to approach our next game with the same humility we showed in the first."

That match takes place in Stuttgart tonight, when the opposition are Tunisia, who avoided defeat in their opening game against Saudi Arabia only by virtue of a goal in added time from Bolton's centre-half Rahdi Jaidi. What should help Spain considerably, as long as they do not lapse into complacency, is that the Tunisians may now give up the game for lost and rest players to concentrate on the match which will determine whether they finish second in Group H, against Ukraine on Friday.

Aragones is likely to take no such liberties, almost certainly sticking with the team that performed so strongly in the opening game. On that occasion, he was rewarded for finally biting the bullet and dropping his captain, Raul, the Real Madrid striker and national icon, whose place has for many moons been owed to reputation and status rather than form. Torres duly formed a productive partnership with another player from an unfashionable club, Valencia's David Villa, with Luis Garcia, of Liverpool, operating on the flank in a bold 4-3-3 formation.

Behind that trio there is enviable strength from a midfield of Garcia's club colleague Xabi Alonso, Barcelona's Xavi, who has recovered after missing five months of the season with knee ligament trouble, and the Brazilian Marcos Senna, the latest in a line of naturalised Spanish internationals stretching right back to the greats Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas.

Even with that incomparable pair converted to their cause for the 1962 finals, Spain failed to come through the group stage. More recently, four quarter-finals in the past six competitions reflect promise and ability that has remained unfulfilled.

Aragones stated before the tournament that his men were on a technical level with most teams but might lack the physical strength of some European and African nations. Significantly, his comment after the demolition of Ukraine was: "We have quality in midfield and physical strength, too."

A run now extended to 23 games without a loss, which included defeating England in a friendly in Madrid, has further fuelled the belief that potential might at last be translated into achievement. "I want to continue dreaming," the coach added. "I believe it's important to dream in this tournament, especially when my players are showing an extraordinary temperament."