Spain's Hierro can prove they are a league apart

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The Independent Online

If the standard of the Spanish league offered a reliable indicator of the quality of the Spanish national team, England's rivals on Wednesday would not hold the unwelcome distinction of being indisputably the No 1 under-achievers of world football.

If the standard of the Spanish league offered a reliable indicator of the quality of the Spanish national team, England's rivals on Wednesday would not hold the unwelcome distinction of being indisputably the No 1 under-achievers of world football.

Because the old chestnut about which is the world's strongest league no longer allows much scope for intelligent debate. Things will change in time, certainly, but right now Spain's first division is the best there is. A curmudgeonly defender of the right either of the Premiership or Serie A, or even the Bundesliga, to claim that honour might have said it was a fluke that last season three out of the four Champions' League semi-finalists were Spanish.

But the evidence today is overwhelming. The strength in depth of Spanish club football is unmatched. Real Madrid, who have assembled by common consent their best team in over 30 years, are already in the last eight of this season's Champions' League, where they will probably be joined by Valencia and Deportivo la Coruña. Of the eight teams remaining in the Uefa Cup, four are Spanish. Happily for European football, because the potential embarrassment would otherwise be too great, the draw is such that Barcelona, Celta de Vigo, Rayo Vallecano and Alavés cannot monopolise all four semi-final places.

And yet in the international arena, Spain have consistently flattered to deceive. Not only in recent years, but always. Spain have not only failed to win a World Cup, they have never come close to winning one. Several shrewd observers tipped them to replicate the form of their league and win Euro 2000 but once again they went out early, though not as ignominiously as England. In the crucial game they could have beaten France with a little more luck. Except that, as the most diehard Spanish follower would accept, they did not deserve to advance beyond the quarter-finals.

Kevin Keegan went but José Antonio Camacho remains. No one has even proposed sacking him. Partly because Spain did perform very well in the Euro 2000 qualifiers; partly because people have become so dispirited by the dashed hopes of last summer that a profound scepticism seems to have set in. Spanish fans, amply nourished by their clubs, do not really care very much how their national team do.

That could all change should Spain put on a sparkling performance at Villa Park. A handsome victory over " los Ingleses" would do wonders for patriotic morale.

Camacho's squad of 18, announced on Friday shortly before Sven Goran Eriksson announced his 31, contains more than enough quality to give an inevitably experimental England side a rough night out. Spain's potential might never have been realised and maybe never will but it remains enormous.

Real Madrid's Raúl and Hierro, Barcelona's Luis Enrique and Guardiola and Valencia's Mendieta are five players who could get into any side in the world. Fernando Hierro, the Madrid captain, is a player who perhaps has not received, beyond Spain, the plaudits he deserves. An excellent defender on the ground and in the air, he is tough as nails - and cynical when he feels he has to be. But what is truly remarkable about him, for a man who plays at centre-half, is his elegance of movement and the almost David Beckham sweetness with which he strikes a football. Hierro, who is 34, is the man who takes Spain's free-kicks from outside the area, who bends them round and over defensive walls. He is also Spain's top goalscorer.

Unlike England, Spain do not appear to be blessed right now with an abundance of promising young talent. Though perhaps one should qualify that immediately by pointing out that Iker Casillas, Madrid's first-choice keeper, is only 19, and that Raúl, who has been around so long he seems like a veteran, is only 23. In fact, given the playing years Raúl has ahead of him and given his proven excellence up front at the highest level, there is probably no player in the world who, in an open market, would command a higher transfer fee.

Not too far behind would be Gaizka Mendieta who, at 26, is the discreet but talented prototype of the hard-tackling, smart-thinking, goalscoring midfielder every manager dreams of having. Guardiola, the Barcelona captain, is the Spanish Beckenbauer, all poise and intelligence. And Luis Enrique, also of Barcelona, is a ferociously competitive attacking midfielder, a goalscoring Roy Keane.

Add to the mix two full-backs, Sergi and Salgado, who would walk into the England team and it is plain that, on paper, Spain are almost as good a team as their league would warrant. If England can match them, and even beat them, this week, Eriksson's dream of World Cup qualification will suddenly seem a whole lot more plausible.