Valeron provides instant impact

Spain 1 Russia 0
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Substitutions do not come any better or well timed than the one made by Spain's coach Inaki Saez here last night. Less than 40 seconds after he had brought on Juan Carlos Valeron, Saez had the huge satisfaction of seeing the Deportivo La Coruña striker score the goal that sent Spain to the top of Group A.

Substitutions do not come any better or well timed than the one made by Spain's coach Inaki Saez here last night. Less than 40 seconds after he had brought on Juan Carlos Valeron, Saez had the huge satisfaction of seeing the Deportivo La Coruña attacker score the goal that sent Spain to the top of Group A.

Valeron played down his sharp finish, saying: "It was quite lucky because it was the first ball I actually touched in the game and it managed to go in." But it ended Spain's almost painful struggle to find the back of the Russian net.

That absence of goal threat had convinced Saez to alter his approach, including replacing Fernando Morientes with Valeron, and the changes paid instant dividends. "It was not a classic ­ first games in tournaments never are. We found it increasingly difficult so I had to make changes," Saez said. "It is a substitution I use regularly. I needed a player to come on and pass the ball and hold possession. Valeron did that." And, of course, he scored the goal.

Presumably both sides had been heartened by the result earlier in the afternoon in Porto, which meant that the hosts were no longer the overwhelming favourites to go through from the group. Spain certainly started brightly, threatening twice in the opening three minutes with Raul putting a cross-shot wide before providing an adroit pass that led to Morientes having a shot blocked by Roman Sharonov.

Russia, however, gained in confidence after their inauspicious beginning on a balmy evening and looked better after deciding on a back four rather than a last line of three. After David Albelda had attempted two flimsy challenges Aleksander Mostovoi combined with Aleksei Smertin to provide a chance for Dmitri Bulykin, but he went not for the obvious shot but a pass that was cut out.

Another fine move led to Marat Izmailov trying a long- range blast that flew wide. Smertin, who lined up at the back rather than in the midfield position he occupies for Portsmouth, was one of four Russians booked in the opening 32 minutes. Smertin's offence was a foul on Vicente who looked a lively proposition, sprinting down Spain's left flank. The Russian goalkeeper Sergei Ovchinnikov distinguished himself with flamboyant dives to cut out two Vicente crosses but a third led to the unmarked Morientes having a header stupendously saved by Ovchinnikov.

Suitably inspired by that 36th-minute escape, Russia enjoyed their best spell, heading towards the interval. Dmitri Alenichev, who had scored Porto's third goal in the recent Champions' League final, forced Iker Casillas into his first real save following a solo run and then tested the Real Madrid goalkeeper again as he cut in following a right-wing corner. And then Evgeni Aldonin had a low drive saved.

Spain began the second half as they had the first with Ruben Baraja having a powerful drive blocked by Aldonin.

With Russian defenders now lining up to curb the menace of Vicente, who was often forced inside, Spain shifted the main focus of their attack to Joseba Etxeberria on the right. One of his bursts led to a cross that was just missed by the leaping Morientes, which was the last act of the Champions' League leading marksman.

He was replaced by Valeron as part of a double substitution. Morientes must have endured mixed emotions as he watched Valeron score the first time he received the ball. He controlled a low cross from Carles Puyol and then banged his shot past Ovchinnikov.

Replacing Raul, Fernando Torres also proved an instant hit. It was his surge towards the box which drew a foul that earned Sharonov a second yellow card and dismissal in the 87th minute. By then, though, the game had been won and lost.

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