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Spain feeling Belfast bruises

Published: Saturday 7 October 2006, 15.47CET
Luis Aragonés's Spain are still reeling from their 3-2 defeat in Northern Ireland as they prepare to take on Group F leaders Sweden in Stockholm this weekend.
by Lucas Brown
from Barcelona
Published: Saturday 7 October 2006, 15.47CET

Spain feeling Belfast bruises

Luis Aragonés's Spain are still reeling from their 3-2 defeat in Northern Ireland as they prepare to take on Group F leaders Sweden in Stockholm this weekend.

Previous Spain coaches always appeared to have it easy for 18 months as the side breezed through qualifying for major tournaments, but times are changing. This national team travel to Stockholm to play Sweden on Saturday in a game that has to make up for last month's outrageous Group F defeat by Northern Ireland.

Spanish trials
Historically, the complications have begun for 'la selección' at final tournaments, with doubts and misfortune contributing to the country's series of unexpectedly early exits. For Luis Aragonés, things are different. The 68-year-old has come under fire for Spain's displays both in qualification matches and at the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

Finals controversy
To make it to Germany this summer, Aragonés had to lead his side to wins in their last two qualifiers as well as a two-legged play-off success against Slovakia. Expectations were raised by a strong start to the finals themselves, only for hopes to be dashed once more when Spain fell to France in the first knockout round. Aragonés was reported to have considered stepping down, but instead accepted a new two-year deal from the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) to guide the team to UEFA EURO 2008™.

Belfast catastrophe
After a goalless friendly draw in Iceland in mid-August, followed by a Group F win against Liechtenstein, the game that has given Saturday's encounter with Sweden such significance took place in Belfast where a resurgent Northern Ireland beat Spain 3-2. David Healy's hat-trick gave the hosts a deserved victory as the Spanish struggled to cope and, this time, there were not just ripples made, but big waves.

Popular outcry
Aragonés offered his resignation within days, saying to the press "this is what everyone appears to want", referring to a poll in daily sports newspaper Marca where 80 per cent of the 100,000 voters said he should go. However, his offer was refused by the RFEF and the coach reconsidered.

Raúl dropped
The pressure on Aragonés is intense, but he proved he is not about to cower away from difficult decisions as he became the first coach to drop Real Madrid CF striker Raúl González from a Spain squad for a reason other than injury. Such was the outcry from the media that even the fact that he chose not to telephone the country's all-time record goalscorer was picked over in the papers, on radio and on television.

Last stand
Opinion has been split over the move, but it is a decision which has enhanced the need for a convincing performance to keep the critics quiet. With David Villa and Fernando Torres in superb form in the league, Spain still have the ability to score at will, although in these changing times winning qualifying matches is no longer simple for 'la selección'.

Last updated: 07/10/06 19.06CET

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