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Sunday, 16 June, 2002, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
Spanish inquisition begins
Lazio's Gaizka Mendieta scored the winning spot-kick in the penalty shootout against the Republic of Ireland
Mendieta typifies Spain's strength in depth
BBC Sport Online's Stuart Roach

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A lone Spanish trumpeter sounded the Last Post for Ireland and signalled Spain's intent to blow away the most unwanted tag in football.

Spain are the ultimate under-achievers - so often the grand matador who falls on the horns of his bull just as he is ready to go for the kill.

A series of failures to live up to pre-tournament expectations meant this year's hype surrounding Spain's chances was taken with a huge pinch of salt.

Against the Republic of Ireland, they showed why it is too early to persuade the doubters to change their minds.

Spain were wonderfully efficient in the first half and looked hungry when they piled forward.

But when the Irish bull began to run, this matador looked scared.

A Spanish fan sounds the Last Post for the Republic of Ireland
Fan will get another chance to blow trumpet

In the qualifying stages of this tournament, Spain emerged from a group that was more lifeless than a group of death.

Jose Camacho's side were, however, ruthlessly effective, scoring three times in each of their games against Slovenia, Paraguay and South Africa - often without appearing to work up a sweat.

Apart from coach Camacho himself, that is.

The most porous coach at this World Cup, Camacho was given more to worry about in the second-round match with Ireland.

Camacho did not help himself by taking off all his strikers in the second half and trying to defend a vulnerable one-goal lead.

But Spain also underestimated Ireland's ability to up their game in the second half.

But Spain's nerve - and their luck - held to suggest that this year the daggers may finally be raised and ready for the kill.

Many people's dark horses at the start of this tournament, Spain are now one of the front-runners.

Camacho has moulded an efficient machine and, with players like Gaizka Mendieta on the bench, Spain have the depth to fit spare parts without fear of the whole thing breaking down.

Fernando Morientes puts Spain ahead against the Republic of Ireland
Morientes claims his third goal of the tournament

An injury to Diego Tristan, Camacho's original choice of strike partner for Raul, gave Morientes the chance to underline his credentials.

He has done so emphatically, with three crucial goals, and only injuries will let Tristan back in now.

Valencia's Ruben Baraja and Juan Carlos Valeron of Deportivo La Coruna are fluid in central midfield.

But it is at the back where the new Spain can be seen.

Real Madrid pair Ivan Helguera and captain Fernando Hierro have formed a rock on which this Spanish side is built, and Barcelona's Puyol has been outstanding at right-back.

Even so, Hierro's attempt to swap shirts with Niall Quinn a few minutes too early nearly cost his side dearly.

Ultimately, Spain were lucky and can thank one of the tournament's outstanding keepers, Iker Casillas, for preserving their interest in the competition.

But that good fortune merely underlines a new belief that this really could be Spain's year.

Or will it be just another case of more paella in the sky?


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GROUP B
  P GD PTS
SPAIN 3 +5 9
PARAGUAY 3 0 4
SOUTH AFRICA 3 0 4
SLOVENIA 3 -5 0

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