International football's perennial underachievers Spain are in defiant mood ahead of their UEFA EURO 2008 Group D opener against Russia in Innsbruck on Tuesday. The talented Spaniards have earned themselves a reputation as chokers over the years after flattering to deceive time and again on the biggest stage.

But their players have been firing back with fighting talk this week, and are in determined mood ahead of their game against the unfancied Russians. Mallorca striker Daniel Guiza insisted the team are paying no attention to their critics. "I don't care what people are saying. We have to stay calm and not listen to these commentaries," he said.

Spain have arguably the most talented midfield and attacking combination in the tournament, with players such as Fernando Torres, David Villa, Cesc Fabregas, Xavi and Andres Iniesta to call upon. However, they have some injury concerns over strikers Torres, Villa and Sergio Garcia and Iniesta, although coach Luis Aragones expects everyone to be fit for the Russia match.

It appears that Aragones is veering towards leaving Fabregas on the sidelines as he does not believe that the Arsenal star, who has yet to score in 26 internationals, has had enough match practice of late. "You can't dispute his quality but the problem is that he has gone 30 days without a game," said the 69-year-old, who is expected to give Liverpool's Xabi Alonso the nod instead.

Pogrebnyak blow
Russia looked to have a good chance of creating a surprise until losing star striker Pavel Pogrebnyak, who has been ruled out of the whole tournament with a knee injury. The Zenit St. Petersburg player, who finished this season's UEFA Cup campaign as joint-top scorer alongside Italy's Luca Toni with ten goals, will be replaced by Samara midfielder Oleg Ivanov.

Pogrebnyak twisted his left knee in a warm-up match against Serbia in late May, and his loss is a big blow for a side already missing another Zenit ace, Andrei Arshavin, who is suspended against Spain. Russia are regarded as one of the outsiders and will struggle to get through a group that also contains Sweden and holders Greece, but Dutch coach Guus Hiddink is not complaining.

"I've known about Arshavin for many months and Pogrebnyak in recent days," he said. "That's a setback. I can't complain and start crying, and anyway I have confidence ... that the rest of the team can cover for those two losses."

Of course there are nerves but I don't want them to play in a way that it will weigh heavily on them and affect their performance
Russia coach Guus Hiddink urges his side to play with confidence against Spain.

At least, though, Russia have been impressive in three recent friendly victories, including one over Serbia, and Hiddink is determined his team will go out and attack. " ," he said.

"They must express themselves and when they do that they can play football, that's for sure. I want to see a very, very bright team. People like to see a team which is going forward and taking risks."

Defensive concerns
Spain, on the other hand, have shown some worrying defensive lapses in recent games and have been harshly treated by their own media. But Liverpool full-back Alvaro Arbeloa claims their defence will prove their detractors wrong.

"The defence has been criticised unfairly but I think people have to realise that the other teams hardly managed to eke out chances against us. The brickbats are unfair and the Spanish defenders are going to show what fine players they are."

However, Spain have always had fine players but ones who fail to rise to the occasion and in a group where they are the clear favourites, the path ahead is a precarious one.