Spain must continue their quest for qualification for UEFA EURO 2004™ in the play-offs despite defeating Armenia 4-0 at the Vazgen Sargsyan stadium in Yerevan in Group 6.
Greece's 1-0 defeat of Northern Ireland in the other game in the section meant Spain finished in second position in the standings behind Otto Rehhagel's group winners and now find themselves in the draw for next month's two-legged play-offs, which takes place in Frankfurt on Monday.
Torres no more
Spain coach Iñaki Sáez restored a more traditional look to his starting lineup by pairing RC Deportivo La Coruña playmaker Juan Valerón with captain Raúl González up front, jettisoning Club Atlético de Madrid forward Fernando Torres. Xabi Alonso was also dropped to allow Rubén Baraja to link up with Valencia CF team-mate David Albelda in the centre and defender Iván Helguera returned from injury after missing the Ukraine match.
Armenia would have recorded their highest-ever points tally in a qualifying competition with a victory but it was not to be. The encounter was a wholly one-sided affair with the higher work-rate of the visitors ensuring they were consistently in the driving seat.
The platform for the triumph was established by Albelda and Baraja in the middle. The pair combined effectively to repel the occasional Armenian foray and gave their own attacking players the freedom to roam. The away side consequently started menacingly, retaining possession and spreading the play at every opportunity. The opener arrived in the eighth minute, when Valerón latched on to a corner and reacted quickly to prod past goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky.
Armenia struggled to create openings but the few they did invariably originated from the lively Artavazd Karamyan on the left flank. He was integral on the only occasion that the hosts caused alarm before the break, picking out Artur Voskanyan, whose shot from distance sped past the far post of Iker Casillas.
The match continued in the same vein after the break, with the visitors driving forward looking to make the game safe and Armenia restricted to counterattacking. Raúl could have taken the pressure off had he scored in the 61st minute after a cross from Vicente Rodríguez but he could only direct his shot straight at a defender. Spain's all-time leading scorer nevertheless made amends by collecting his 34th goal for his country in the 76th minute, racing on to a cross from Joseba Etxeberría and steering his effort beyond the grasp of Berezovsky.
The skipper's goal ensured that the result of the match was not in question but José Reyes Calderón, on as a substitute for Vicente, struck twice in the closing stages to round matters off. The Sevilla FC forward slid in a ball from the hugely influential Valerón and collected his second in the final minute, timing his run into the box to perfection to pick up a pass from Míchel Salgado and direct the ball into the far corner of the net.
"Winning 4-0 away from home is a big boost," said coach Sáez after the game. "We have done our bit and have proved that we have a team capable of qualifying." Raúl added: "It will give us confidence ahead of the play-offs and
I think we are capable of beating any team we now meet."