FOR THE second time in a matter of weeks, Club Barcelona carry the expectations of an entire nation into sporting conflict with familiar foes from a deadly European rival.

Against the now-confident Italians at the Foxboro Stadium here today, the core of the Spanish side has the opportunity for immediate retribution, as well as the chance to rid itself of the epitaph of great under-achievers.

To help them attain a World Cup semi-final place for the first time in 44 years, Spain will once more invest faith in the players of the Catalan club who bear the banner for the revolutionary zeal of Javier Clemente.

Taking one look at their poor competitive record when it mattered most, the national coach controversially jettisoned the Real Madrid clan, led by the legendary goalscorer, Emilio Butragueno, in favour of those who could apply themselves to a more disciplined, defensive strategy. He found what he was looking for at Barcelona.

Suspicions about the validity of the policy have stalked Clemente throughout his two-year tenure. They surfaced again in Athens in May when the supreme artists of Milan humbled Barcelona 4-0 in a memorable European Cup final exhibition. Success today would surely turn the surviving sceptics into believers at last.

'We have the players and the will to go all the way to the final,' Clemente declared, while Spain's minister for sport, Rafael Cortes Elvira, was even more bullish. 'This is our dream team, and maybe this is the year we surprise the world.'

Against Switzerland in the second round, Barcelona provided five starting players and one substitute, while five from Milan were in the Italian side who edged out Nigeria in extra time. Furthermore, the Italian coach, Arrigo Sacchi, was once a master of the San Siro club.

Julio Salinas, rested against the Swiss, could return as Clemente looks to beef up his attack and take advantage of weary opponents, who have had only three days to prepare for the quarter-final - half the amount of time granted to their opponents.

Ironically, Salinas did not start a single fixture for Johan Cruyff's champions in the Spanish league, a victim of the formidable partnership between the Brazilian maestro, Romario, and Bulgaria's top striker, Hristo Stoichkov, who are also both preparing for quarter-final action this weekend.

Salinas, who has now moved on to Deportivo La Coruna, was hardly missed as Spain triumphed over the Swiss 3-0, but he has an important bustling presence, which may serve them well today in harness with Luis Enrique.

Spain have shown us several faces already this tournament. Impressive in the way they held the lead over Germany, they were fortunate first time out to have kept a point from the frenzy of South Korea's exciting comeback. Confidence for the biggest examination so far is helped by the fact that, for the first time, there are no suspensions to complicate Clemente's strategy.

Missing against Switzerland was the highly rated midfielder from Atletico Madrid, Jose Luis Caminero, who scored twice against Bolivia. He believes their extra pace will carry the day.

'We have to play against Italy with a very quick transition from defence to attack, because their midfield will stifle our approach work,' Caminero said. 'Italy's midfield is their forte. They are very difficult to surprise on the attack, because they always have four men back in defence.'

As one of Spain's senior statesmen, the challenge of defeating history rests on the broad shoulders of the 32-year-old goalkeeper, Andoni Zubizarreta who is appearing in his third final.

'What I do is set the tone,' Zubizarreta said. 'I have to remember the things we've done wrong in the past and remind the younger players of this.'

To overcome the illustrious Azzurri, he says they must concentrate only on themselves. 'We can't start talking about how many players they have from Milan, and how many we have from Barcelona. We have good personalities in this team to do difficult things and go through difficult times. Each unit has its own feeling, and this one is daring.'

Italy have stumbled to reach this stage but the identity of their next opponents can only be a boost for them this afternoon. In 1982 in Spain, they lifted the golden prize after a dismal showing in the first round, and Roberto Baggio's return to scoring form against the Nigerians has inspired the whole party.

'Now that he has overcome the crisis, we all expect a lot from him - starting with this game with Spain,' the Milan midfielder, Demetrio Albertini, said.

With their guiding light rehabilitated, the focus of attention switches to the Lazio forward, Guiseppe Signori, who has also been out of sorts and makes way for the return of the midfield strong man, Dino Baggio. His former Juventus colleague, Antonio Conte, has also won a place in midfield; while Gianluca Pagliuca returns in goal after his two-match suspension, in place of Luca Marchegiani.

ITALY: Pagliuca (Sampdoria); Tassotti, Maldini, Costacurta (all Milan), Benarrivo (Parma); Donadoni, Albertini (Milan), D Baggio (Parma), Conte (Juventus); Massaro (Milan), R Baggio (Juventus).

SPAIN (probable): Zubizarreta (Valencia); Nadal; Ferrer (both Barcelona); Abelardo (Sporting Gijon), Sergi (Barcelona); Caminero (Atletico Madrid), Bakero (Barcelona), Alkorta (Real Madrid), Goicoechea (Barcelona); Salinas (Deportivo La Coruna), Luis Enrique (Real Madrid).

Referee: S Puhl (Hungary).