Aragonés’ hard-bitten cunning can end Spain’s 44 years of hurt

Kevin McCarra

Luis Aragonés is right to reject the belief that football is a game played by 22 men and won by the Germans

Kevin McCarra

Spain were undergoing a crash course in success yesterday. After gentle training at Austria Wien’s ground there were even milder questions, but Xabi Alonso was still nonplussed. The Liverpool midfielder was asked to make a comparison between the current line-up and the indefatigable spirit of the Spain team that won the European Championship in 1964. That was 17 years before he was born.

He answered as best he could, with conventional remarks about the morale in the dressing room these days. The squad are coping with a degree of attention that has been unknown to Spain for a couple of generations. Bookmakers, sceptics by profession, make them marked favourites to beat Germany tomorrow in the Euro 2008 final. All it takes is one more win to destroy the caricature perceptions that cluster around the side.

Luis Aragonés, for instance, had appeared a coach who was as much of a danger to Spain’s composure as any opponent. The anger over the racist comment he made about Thierry Henry four years ago did not prompt him to avoid publicity. When the Spanish football federation’s deliberations over identifying his successor became somewhat indiscreet in February he raged that his employers should “sack me now”.

It was an intemperate stance, especially since he has not looked intent on holding on to the job. He has gone on contradicting normal practice. There may have been confusion this week but it is widely thought that he has agreed a two-year deal with Fenerbahce. Results, however, show that this has not distracted his men.

Maybe they know he is, for good or ill, a singular figure and assume life will not be quiet while he is on the premises. Aragonés is not turning into a lovable old codger. The notion of a person who turns 70 next month working outside Spain for the first time and doing so in the marvellous bedlam of Istanbul, without any apparent ability to speak Turkish, seems reckless but the only place Aragonés would definitely refuse to live is in seclusion. Turkey’s coach Fatih Terim, on the other hand, now seems certain to stay in his job and aim to lead his country to the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa.

Aragonés takes credit for sending out a side who have played the most refined and modern football at the competition. There is not even a younger adviser whispering bright ideas to him. He would not tolerate any such person for a second. As Aragonés likes to remind his audience, he has a lot of experience.

After citing Gary Lineker’s crack about football being a game in which two teams play each other before Germany win in the end, he went straight on to recall that he had known the Englishman while he was, rather briefly, coach at Barcelona 20 years ago.

His numerous enemies cannot ignore the fact that Aragonés’s side have a superior record to Germany in defence and attack during this tournament. The stereotypes collapse when the characteristics of these two sides at Euro 2008 are examined.

Germany did, it is true, live up to their heritage as intimidating fighters when they found a way to beat Turkey but no one should go on to speak of Teutonic discipline. Joachim Löw has aimed for a more expressive style and that has been Germany’s salvation. They survive not so much through endurance as by spurts of flair.

Colin Kazim-Richards might have slipped at a key moment but Philipp Lahm’s winner against Turkey was the culmination of a beautifully articulated move. Earlier there had been distinction against Portugal when the cross by the left midfielder Lukas Podolski was converted by the right midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, who had stolen into the goalmouth.

Even so Spain’s 3-0 win in Thursday’s semi-final was a cautionary tale for Löw. Aragonés’s team had the expertise to eliminate Russia’s threat before wearing them out with flawless passing.

Spain’s doctor said last night that David Villa, Euro 2008’s leading scorer, would not recover from a thigh injury before tomorrow but the team made his departure, after 34 minutes, look like a boon. Cesc Fábregas came on but there was no clutter to the five-man midfield. The effect was to make Spain more fluid and the elusiveness baffled a fatigued Russia.

Germany will surely take a very different approach to that line-up, who looked confused and disappointed that it was impossible for them to play as they had previously. Löw’s team cannot, as Russia did, show a benign acceptance of Spain’s artful patterns. Germany are the bigger side and it is their entitlement, if they choose, to employ force. The duo of holding midfielders and, for that matter, the well-built Michael Ballack can introduce the abrasiveness that Aragonés’s side were largely spared on Thursday.

For all that, Germany are weak in some respects. Jens Lehmann, against Turkey, appeared bent on highlighting the wisdom of Arsène Wenger in disposing of him as Arsenal goalkeeper. All that could be said on behalf of the veteran was that anyone would be on edge if he had no more to guard him than the centre-half duo of Per Mertesacker and Christoph Metzelder.

Spain, it is true, may conceivably fold. If the contemporary Germany line-up does not cow them, the legend of the German team just might. This is a nation with three World Cups and three European Championships to its name. The last task of Euro 2008 for Spain is to be obstreperous and iconoclastic. Aragonés can give them a few tips.

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