THE ONLY way in which Spain are living up to expectations in France 98 is by conforming to their tradition of under performing in major tournaments. Last night's latest let-down leaves them needing victory and favours next Wednesday as Group D reaches its climax.
Spain have qualified for six successive World Cup finals and yet, for all the steady stream of talent envied by other nations, have not reached the last four since 1950. Javier Clemente's current batch of players are as gifted a squad as Spain has produced in living memory - lit up by Raul, Fernando Hierro and Luis Enrique. And yet last night's inability to overcome a moderate Paraguayan side means they now stand as the seeded team most likely at this stage to fall by the wayside.
Clemente could barely have responded to the 3-2 defeat by Nigeria with a more positive intent, effectively fielding four strikers from the off. Yet not even victory over Bulgaria in Lens will assure Spain progress through to the last 16 alongside the group winners, Nigeria. Moving off the bottom of the group, having scored more goals than Bulgaria, is scant consolation. Any of the three trailing teams could join the Africans in the second round.
Paraguay, a point better off than Spain, could not have been criticised for perceiving a draw a more favourable result as in the final first-round game they face a Nigerian team who could have already hit cruise mode.
Clemente acknowledged Paraguay's defensive approach had stymied his team. He said: "We tried to score but Paraguay closed off all the avenues. It might not be the most beautiful approach but it is effective. We will now play the last game of the group as if it was a final."
The South Americans, sitting in a qualifying berth after two goalless draws, were content to go man-for-man on the Spanish forwards and await their chance to break. Such moments seldom arrived but three minutes before half-time Aristides Rojas should have scored. Coming across breathing space in the Spanish penalty area, and with a clear sight of goal, he waited too long for the ball to sit perfectly and Carlos Aguilera blocked for a corner.
Spain, having obliged the goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert to come marauding forward to take a 30-yard free-kick, struggled to create a decent opening until seconds before the break when Joseba Etxeberria centred and Raul turned at the near post, shooting low and quickly. Chilavert parried but the ball was still spinning free. As Juan Antonio Pizzi lunged, but Celso Ayala produced an exquisitely timed tackle to clear.
Clemente briefly tried the Real Madrid combination up front, bringing on Francisco Morientes to partner Raul, but it was Barcelona's Luis Enrique who came closest to scoring in the second period. First, a delightful move flowed from Hierro, through Etxeberria turning inside from the right wing, to Luis Enrique, arriving late and in space on the left side of the penalty area. His shot was firm and true but at an ideal height for Chilavert to divert the ball over the crossbar.
Then, on 68 minutes, Kiko, having replaced Raul, centred for Luis Enrique to head strongly and bring another parry from the Paraguayan captain.
Paraguay, however, always appeared at least as likely to bring the game to life with a goal. The lively Miguel Benitez scampered down the left and curled a tricky shot which Andoni Zubizarreta, equalling Peter Shilton's 125-cap mark, did well to turn wide of a post.
Paraguay, bemused but delighted to be so close to qualifying for the second stage despite awaiting their first goal in France, are a neat and well-harnessed outfit. Yet Spain's failure to win last night is more an indictment of their own shortcomings than an indication Paraguay are a coming force.
SPAIN (4-2-3-1): Zubizarreta (Valencia); Alkorta (Athletic Bilbao), Aguilera (Atletico Madrid), Abelardo, Sergi (both Barcelona), Hierro (Real Madrid), Amor, Luis Enrique (both Barcelona), Raul (Real Madrid), Pizzi (Barcelona), Etxeberria (Athletic Bilbao). Substitutes used: Morientes (Real Madrid) for Pizzi, 52; Celades (Barcelona) for Aberardo, 56; Kiko (Atletico Madrid) for Raul, 65.
PARAGUAY (4-1-3-2): Chilavert (Velez Sarsfield), Sarabia, Ayala (both River Plate), Arce (Palmeiras), Caniza (Olimpia), Gamarra (Corinthians), Enciso (Internacional), Acuna (Real Zaragoza), Benitez (Espanyol), Campos (Peking Guoan), A Rojas (U Santa Fe). Substitutes used: Paredes (Olimpia) for Campos, 46; Yegros (Cruz Azul) for Acuna, 74; Ramirez (Sporting Lisbon) for Rojas, 83.
Referee: I McLeod (S Africa).
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