Spain will be chasing a third victory in four UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying ties when they face Armenia in León tonight.
Iñaki Sáez's men want to return to winning ways after they were held by Ukraine in Kiev last Saturday. The Group 6 leaders had to settle for a point after Olexandr Horshkov equalised in the 92nd minute in a 2-2 draw. Hitherto dominant in the section, Spain did not have things their own way and, according to Sáez, now need a good start against Armenia to restore "calm" to their campaign. "It will be important for us to play at a fast pace and pressure them so we can get an early goal and then play a little more calmly," he said.
The 59-year-old coach has admitted to being surprised by the quality of Armenia's play after watching a video of their 1-0 win against Northern Ireland last weekend. "
They are a team that enjoys having the ball at their feet and they don't resort to the long ball," he said. "They showed good skill and passing ability. It won't be easy."
Hard to beat
Armenia's success was their first in three years, and came a week after the Romanian Mihai Stoichita took over the national team. The jubilant scenes following Artur Petrosyan's late clincher in Yerevan do not yet herald a new dawn, however. "Even though we beat Northern Ireland, it will be difficult against Spain," Stoichita said.
The country's fourth trainer this year, Stoichita is expected to welcome back Romik Khachatryan after injury - "he will strengthen our midfield" - and could also replace Artur Voskanyan with defensive midfield player Agvan Mkrtchyan. However, brothers Ara and Aram Hakobya have not travelled due to visa problems.
For Spain, Iván Helguera returns from suspension; Rubén Baraja is an injury doubt; while Juan Valerón, impressive as a substitute in Kiev, could start up front alongside Raúl González and Diego Tristán. "We are the home team and must show more in attack and take our chances," Sáez said. "Our target is to win. That would give us a huge advantage in the group."
Elsewhere in Group 6, bottom sides Greece and Northern Ireland meet in Belfast. Though second bottom, Greece are just three points behind second-placed Ukraine with a game in hand, and coach Otto Rehhagel said: "Luckily for us, Ukraine did not win against Spain. It was a good result for us.
If my players can perform with passion, then we will get a result here."
Full-back Giourkas Seitaridis should shake off the injury which kept him out of the 2-2 friendly draw in Austria last Wednesday, while Themistoklis Nikolaidis and Angelos Charisteas are the likely forward pairing. Given the host team's record of one point from three matches - and a miserable 702 minutes, or seven games without scoring - three points will be the only item on the Rehhagel agenda.
Northern Ireland have been hurt by the retirement of key players from international football, including Kevin Horlock, Neil Lennon and Jim Magilton. Others are unavailable for duty this week, although Steve Lomas, Paul McVeigh and David Healy all trained on Tuesday after picking up knocks in Armenia. Coach Sammy McIlroy said: "No one is trying harder than myself and the players. If I could not see a light, I would be worried. But I can see a light. Our football in the first half against Armenia was one of our best displays in a long time."
Additional reporting by Khachik Chakhoyan and Maria Bretones Merino
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