Spain look to the future
Fate conspired once more to halt a promising Spain side in their tracks, and this time it was France who sent the Iberians packing in the Round of 16.
The side built by Luis Aragones over the last two years arrived at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany as something of an unknown quantity. A less than sparkling qualification campaign, a comprehensive win in the play-offs and some stuttering performances in the warm-up games had the fans in two minds as to the class of 2006's credentials.
All that was to change, though, following a dazzling win over Ukraine in their opening game, a victory that raised expectations among Spain's long-suffering supporters. Boasting a dynamic midfield infused with no little quality, and an inspired forward line capable of occasional brilliance, Spain looked set to kick the underachieving habit.
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Although they were made to suffer in their following game against Tunisia after conceding an early goal, Aragones' charges displayed a new-found capacity for weathering adversity as they eventually turned the match around. After the reserves secured the three points against Saudi Arabia in the final group game, it was time for the acid test and a Round of 16 meeting with neighbours France.
Despite dominating the game and taking the lead, Spain were unable to translate their superiority into further goals and, when the errors finally came, the experienced French took full control as Spanish heads dropped.
Like any good father, Aragones defended his young ones to the hilt. "We certainly gave as good as we got, but when you go 1-0 up you shouldn't really lose if everyone knows how to compete," he said. "I didn't know how to compete because I should have had a plan to ensure that didn't happen. It was an even game that France won because of tiny details. They just did those little things better."
Wanted: an on-field leader
Spain showed plenty of quality on the ball, a willingness to dominate possession, reliability in defence and invention up front. Once again, though, they were found wanting in terms of confidence and belief.
Aragones' men showed their opponents too much respect, and the forward line looked a little inhibited and short of ideas as their much-vaunted strikers struggled to pierce the French rearguard. There is no questioning the quality of the players what Spain's new generation lacked was the mental strength to topple Domenech's old guard.
What is more, although packed with exceptional talent, La Selección are still searching for a leader on the field, a truly world-class player with the necessary character to drive the team forward to victory. Raul has played the role on an occasional basis, but the Real Madrid man vanished without trace against Zidane and Co as the Spaniards lost their way.
Hope springs eternal
In spite of another early flight home, Spain's fine blend of experience and youth certainly made a good impression in Germany, raising expectations for the future. The drive and commitment of Sergio Ramos, the nerveless talent of Cesc Fabregas, the finishing skills of David Villa, and Fernando Torres' technique and goalscoring prowess all represent heartening signs for the future. Having forged a style of their own, what the Spaniards now need is for one of their young stars to become the matador they are looking for to kill off opposing teams.
Before the finals Aragones had said he would leave the post if Spain failed to reach the semi-finals. The venerable coach decided to change his mind, however, and will continue with the project he embarked on two years ago. His next objective is the 2008 UEFA European Championship, a valuable testing ground for another date with destiny in four years' time: the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa.