SUWON, South Korea, Reuters
A Spanish side playing with increasing swagger and with enviable strength in depth should have everything in their favor when they play Ireland in the World Cup second round today. Spain scored nine goals, three from an inspirational Raul, and racked up a maximum nine points in Group B — their best start to a World Cup finals campaign since 1950.
Ireland lost captain Roy Keane on the eve of the finals after a row with coach Mick McCarthy and had to sweat to reach the knockout phase from Group E, a win over Saudi Arabia finally sealing their place after draws against Cameroon and Germany.
But in a competition that has thrown up so many surprises, Spain insist they will not underestimate the threat of a tenacious Irish team who have shown they are capable of competing with Europe’s best.
“In the past Spanish sides haven’t shown respect for smaller nations and we’ve come unstuck,” coach Jose Antonio Camacho said before the squad left their training base in Ulsan.
“We’ve made a great start to the competition but all we’ve done is achieve our first goal. We’re playing well but the opposing team are also in form and they’ll be doing everything to stop us.”
Ireland reached the quarter-finals on their first appearance in the finals in Italy in 1990 and made the second round four years later.
Under McCarthy they qualified for these finals from a group that included Portugal and the Netherlands.
They put the potentially crippling loss of midfielder Keane behind them to come back and clinch draws against Cameroon and Germany before their confident victory over Saudi Arabia.
“People didn’t think we could get where we are now,” McCarthy recalled after the win over the Saudis. “People thought we’d get beaten in the first two games.
“We fight against doubters and critics all the time. We do it very well.”
McCarthy is likely to stick with the team that started their final group game, assuming Damien Duff and in-form striker Robbie Keane recover from minor knocks. Speedy forwards The speed of Duff and Keane could be crucial as they come up against the somewhat static partnership of Miguel Angel Nadal, 35, and Fernando Hierro, 34, the heart of the Spanish defense.
“The players they have up front aren’t there to chase long balls,” Camacho recognized. “Their style normally is to play the ball around.”
Nadal, Hierro and Luis Enrique were all part of the Spanish team that beat Ireland 3-1 the last time they met at Lansdowne Road, Dublin in 1993. All three should be in Camacho’s starting line-up on Sunday.
The coach made eight changes for the South Africa game but is expected to revert to the team that started the first two matches, with Fernando Morientes in place of Diego Tristan, who is recovering from ankle and groin injuries.