San Marino hold key to Spain's pain

October 11, 2005

MILAN, Oct 11 (Reuters) - Spain will take part in the World Cup playoffs if they beat minnows San Marino as expected in their final qualifier on Wednesday but their chances of direct qualification are now out of their hands.

The Spanish need European Group Seven leaders Serbia & Montenegro to drop points against regional rivals Bosnia in their final game in Belgrade to have any hope of automatically booking their place in next year's finals in Germany.

Serbia are guaranteed first place if they beat Bosnia, but should they lose, a Spanish victory over San Marino will allow Luis Aragones's side to grab the all-important top spot.

If Serbia and Bosnia draw, Spain could still finish top as long as they beat San Marino by a margin of five goals, while a four-goal victory would be enough if Serbia draw 0-0 or 1-1.

The two teams would have to play off at a neutral ground to decide the group leadership if Spain won by four goals and Serbia and Bosnia drew 2-2.

'We are all hoping that Serbia lose to Bosnia, or at the very least end up drawing,' Spain winger Jose Antonio Reyes said.

'Bosnia are still playing for a place in the World Cup so that gives us added hope of a good result for us.'

Reyes played a key role in helping Spain grab a vital 2-0 win away to Belgium on Saturday, turning the game when he came on as a second-half substitute by providing the scoring passes for both of Fernando Torres's goals.

The Arsenal forward is convinced that Spain will do their bit by scoring five against San Marino as they did when the two sides met earlier in qualification, although he has also warned of the dangers of over anxiety.

'We are confident of achieving our aim but we cannot afford to go mad and think we can score five goals very quickly. We need to take the game one step at a time.'

The tension was evident, however, in Monday's evening training session, and defender Carles Puyol and winger Vicente came to blows after a fierce dispute for the ball during a hotly contested practice game.

Aragones said his side were flattered by their 2-0 victory over Belgium and has made it clear that he will make several changes to the team that started in Brussels.

Espanyol playmaker Ivan de la Pena and Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos will replace the suspended Xavi and Michel Salgado, while Reyes will take over from Vicente on the left wing.

Aragones is also likely to drop right-sided midfielder Joaquin and use Valencia striker David Villa to strengthen his forward line as he goes in search of goals, while Atletico Madrid centre back Pablo Ibanez is expected to slot into the back four at the expense of Carlos Marchena.

San Marino, the tiny republic in the middle of Italy with a population of just 28,000, has yet to win a World Cup qualifier and their team of part-timers and amateurs lost 3-0 to Bosnia on Saturday to remain point-less at the foot of the group with a negative goal difference of 34-2.

Since entering the ranks of World Cup hopefuls in 1992 San Marino have managed to pick up just two draws in qualifying against Turkey in 1993 and Latvia in 2001.

To make matters even more difficult for Giampaolo Mazza's side, Andy Selva, San Marino's only professional footballer who plays in the Italian Serie C1 with Padova, is missing through suspension.