Spain turn to Raul

June 9, 2004
By Mitch Phillips

Group A Preview

Spain's hopes of making an impact at the European championship, starting with a smooth run through their Group A games, once again rest heavily on Raul who has come to epitomise the fortunes of the national team.

The Real Madrid striker has straddled the Champions League like a colossus and is his country's most prolific scorer with 38 goals but somehow, when it gets down to the nitty gritty, he has failed to rise to the occasion at major tournaments.

His missed penalty in the last minute of the quarter-final defeat by France four years ago still hurts and, despite a talented squad, Spain's chances of breaking their last-eight hoodoo sit squarely on his 26-year-old shoulders.

Spain are hot favourites to progress from the group but after being regularly force-fed a diet of underachievement their fans, and opponents, are yet to be convinced they can do more.

Hosts Portugal have endured an uninspiring preparation but should go through alongside their neighbours, although Greece and Russia are both more than capable of upsetting either of the Iberian duo.

All four teams are capable of beating each other but the bookmakers expect the two local sides to reach the last eight.

For once, Spain have not arrived at a tournament on the back of an all-conquering qualifying campaign and it could work in their favour after their repeated failure to live up to expectations.

Time and again the Spanish have set off with hopes high that this will finally be their year only to troop home disappointed, more often than not after a quarter-final exit.

Portugal have also been struggling for form and if they were not been hosting the tournament their results going into it would have seen them listed among the outsiders.

While it is never easy to gauge championship readiness from non-competitive matches, Portugal's efforts in major friendlies over the last 18 months have been dire.

They have failed to beat any of the Euro 2004 finalists in seven attempts since Brazil's World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari took over early in 2003 and most of their wins have come against the likes of Kazakhstan, Albania and Kuwait.

However, the worries should all be forgotten in the excitement of the tournament's opening game on Saturday when Portugal play Greece in Porto, followed just under three hours later by Spain against Russia in Faro.

The bulk of the players who took Portugal so agonisingly and controversially close to the final in 2000 are still in place.

Real Madrid forward Luis Figo and Lazio centre-back Fernando Couto each have more than 100 caps while Rui Costa is not far off his century. All three are playing in their third European championship - a record for Portugal.

Prolific Paris St Germain striker Pauleta, now 31, brings a wealth of experience while promising Manchester United winger Cristiano Ronaldo adds the verve of youth.

Portugal also have history on their side having never lost a group phase match at any European championship after six wins and three draws.

Greece, who qualified ahead of Spain after beating them 1-0 in Zaragoza a year ago, also drew 1-1 with Portugal in a friendly last November and the country's experienced squad will not be deterred by their underdog status.

They have the individual quality and team spirit to make a mark but their lack of tournament experience - this is only their third major finals after appearances in the 1994 World Cup and 1980 European Championships - could be their Achilles heel.

Russia, despite having to qualify via a playoff victory over Wales, are a vastly experienced tournament nation although they have failed to punch their weight in recent years.

They will equal the competition record of eight matches without a win if they fail to beat Spain in their opening match.

They remain something of an unknown quantity for the local sides having last played Spain in 1998 and Portugal way back in 1983 when they were still the Soviet Union.