Verdict on rivals: 'Spain don't have a single world-class player in the side'

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The Independent Football

Spain's football squad, historically poor travellers, will face England at Old Trafford on Wednesday deficient in confidence, short of goals and minus their captain, top scorer and inspiration of recent years, Raul.

Having lost their two most recent Euro 2008 qualifying games, in Northern Ireland and Sweden, the Spanish were humiliated 1-0 in a November home friendly by Romania; and all this on top of their poor showing at last summer's World Cup. But, according to Sky Sports' Spanish football pundit, Guillem Balague, it is a moot point whether many people on the Iberian peninsula care much.

"It is one of those Catch 22 things," said Balague. "We don't win anything, so people don't care about the national team, and because people don't care about the national team we don't win anything. The real national teams are Barcelona and Real Madrid. They arouse the fans' passion where the national team doesn't. This weekend the people in Spain will be talking La Liga, then from tomorrow until Wednesday about the national team. Next day, end of story.

"But here in England on Thursday there will be plenty of post-match discussion. We don't have that kind of thing, we want to get back to what we regard as real matters, the league. Perhaps it is because we have been disappointed so often."

Balague is not surprised at Raul's omission from the squad. "He was left out after the World Cup, deemed partly responsible for what happened, and in a way rightly so. He was one of a bunch of the old guard who didn't like some of the changes being introduced and he started behaving badly, so it was decided to get rid of him, and I don't think he is ready for a comeback yet. He is our top scorer [44 goals in 102 games] but that doesn't mean anything, because our second- top scorer [with 29] is a central defender, Fernando Hierro."

Despite the reputation he enjoys in this country, not least in the eyes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Spain's best-known striker, Fernando Torres, is also struggling for form, having recently been dropped by his club, Atletico Madrid. Balague added: "Torres was saying last week that there had been another bid for him from Manchester United. Maybe that's what he needs, a new challenge. Right now he doesn't finish well, doesn't keep the ball well. Perhaps being dropped will act as a wake-up call."

Spain's strength, according to Balague, lies in the midfield, though conversely this is part of the team's problem. "During the World Cup [the national coach] Luis Aragones realised he had a lot of good midfielders, so he tried to play them all. Having lots of good midfielders tells you why we play the ball so well but never win tournaments. We don't have midfielders who can score goals like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Our game is very predictable. Midfielders just pass the ball to strikers who try to score, though Andres Iniesta is scoring more for Barcelona, and Cesc Fabregas is improving, though he is not an automatic choice, which I find amazing.

"But that's Aragones for you. He has not signed another contract since the World Cup, though he has been told he will continue until Euro 2008. If Spain don't qualify, though, he is going to finish earlier."

Balague, a sports journalist who has seen British interest in Spanish football mushroom so much since he joined Sky in 1997 that he has bought a house in England to ease the problems of weekly commuting, is convinced the midfield will again be Spain's key - "Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Cesc and one defensive midfielder, maybe David Albelda of Valencia". Carles Puyol and Sergio Ramos are regarded as certainties in central defence, even though both will miss next month's crucial home Euro 2008 qualifier against Denmark because of suspension.

"Puyol is another example of a player who is very strong but not a great defender," said Balague. "He is not a Baresi or a Hierro. Everybody keeps saying players like Puyol are world-class, but I don't think there is a single world-class player in the national team, not a single one."

That said, Balague feels Spain are capable of a result at Old Trafford. When the teams last met, in November 2004, Spain won 1-0 in a match marred by racist chants against England's black footballers.

"The other important thing about that match was how we destroyed you by passing the ball, which made England get aggressive.

"There is something about keeping and passing the ball which destroys English teams, and this current one is the most English team I have seen, all about pace and getting the ball forward as soon as possible. Nobody keeps the ball. Why don't England play like Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool?"