Spain's bit-part players take the plaudits in centre stage

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The Independent Football

Inaki Saez, Spain's coach, took the credit for his team's inspired substitution but it was the shear bloody mindedness of two of this less lauded performers that was as much responsible for Russia's defeat.

Inaki Saez, Spain's coach, took the credit for his team's inspired substitution but it was the shear bloody mindedness of two of this less lauded performers that was as much responsible for Russia's defeat.

All the talk before the tournament was of Raul, Spain's all-time top scorer, and Morientes, his erstwhile Real Madrid clubmate. But neither player enhanced his reputation on Saturday. Both, in fact, were substituted, and if there were rye smiles on the faces of two of Spain's bit-part players, then it was entirely understandable.

Like many of their compatriots, Vicente and Joseba Etxeberria must have grown exasperated by the microphones that were shoved under the noses of the more vaunted pair. Their response was there for all Spain's 15,000 travelling spectators to see. Vicente's bursts down the left flank in the first half had bewitched Russia's backpeddling defenders, who knew not whether he would cut inside or skim them on the outside. It was no coincidence that Vicente was the victim on three of the four occasions when Russian players were shown yellow cards.

When the Russian coach, Georgi Yartsev, delegated an extra defender to look after Valencia's velocity man, frequently forcing him into the middle after the interval, Etxeberria took over on the right flank with a contribution of almost equally dazzling enterprise. With Russia's rearguard pre-occupied with Bilbao's bamboozler, Puyol laid on the cross that Juan Carlos Valeron swept home 36 seconds after he had replaced Morientes.

"It doesn't matter whether I start the game or not,'' said Deportivo La Coruña's match winner, who might have been expected to put more pressure on Saez to change his line up for the game with Greece in Porto on Wednesday.

Yet Valeron had obviously seen enough from the sidelines before his 59th minute introduction to say: "We worked really hard. It was important that we controlled the game. Everything was under control.''

And so it was, except for a brief pre-interval spell after Morientes had met a Vicente cross with a header that showed all Sergie Ovchinnikov's reflexes to be in perfect working order. The Russian response came primarily from Dmitry Alenichev, the man who had embellished Porto's Champions League triumph 17 days ago. Twice in quick succession he tested Iker Casillas before Evgueni Aldonin did likewise with a low drive.

Then as suddenly as it had ignited, the fire in Russia's belly was doused with conviction on the break not uppermost among their few virtues. "It was so essential to win,'' said Saez. "We lost the ball too much, but fortunately for us it did not lead to too many dangerous situations.'' With that, he pointed the accusing finger ever so slightly in the direction of Ruben Baraja, the Valencia midfielder who was, like Raul and Morientes, given short shrift. So, too, was Roman Sharonov, but the 87th minute departure of Russia's central defender was on the orders of the Swiss referee Urs Meier following his second yellow card.

With Russia's 10 men belatedly pushing forward, Spain created and wasted the chances to earn a more impressive winning margin, no one more so than Raul's towering replacement, Fernando Torres, who had several opportunities to match Valeron's feat.

But with their single goal victory, Spain had clearly done more than enough to warn all future opponents, including possibly England in the quarter-finals, that they are capable of going beyond the last eight themselves. "From now on we will give it everything,'' concluded Saez.

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