VIENNA: Spain will head into today’s Euro 2008 final against Germany here confident that they have overcome the mental fragility that has so often dogged them in the past.
Footballing failures – following quickly on from the bounding hope that preceded them – had become so synonymous with the Spanish national team that the phrase “perennial under-achievers” became an almost permanent prefix to the word “Spain”.
Before this tournament it had been 24 years since Spain progressed beyond the quarter-finals of a competition and yet they banished that hoodoo with a nervy penalty shoot-out victory over world champions Italy in the last eight here in Vienna.
After a slightly cagey first half against Russia, Spain opened up after the break to let their football flow and they are finally looking like the team they have always threatened to be.
Now their footballing redemption would be complete if they can take that final step and beat a team that has always been the virtual anti-thesis of the Spaniards.
While Spain have often flattered to deceive at big tournaments, Germany frequently scrap and bully their way further than they seem to merit, such as in 2002 when one of the worst German teams in living memory reached the World Cup final.
And although Spain may be shedding their unwanted tag, Germany show no signs of parting from their traditions.
While it is true to say they played well in their opening match against Poland, since then they have been clearly second best against both Croatia and Turkey, then outplayed Portugal thanks to a brilliant strategy devised by coach Joachim Loew which saw him out-think Luiz Felipe Scolari and were uninspiring against Austria.
And yet, as they often do, they will line up in the final with only a brave man betting against them.
But Spain coach Luis Aragones believes that his team have now developed the mental strength to make their superior ball skills tell against the Germans, insisting that they have learnt from their World Cup disappointment of two years ago when France beat them in the second round.
“This team have been strong mentally for a long time. We played in the World Cup and that’s where we learnt a lot about being strong,” said the 69-year-old.
“I’ve always told my team that to play good football they need to compete and they need to learn the hard way but they are learning all the time.
“Players like Cesc (Fabregas) is 21 and we have other players aged 21, 22, 23 and yet they have the experience of 28-year-olds.”
Germany defender Christophe Metzelder is not so sure Spain have completely overcome the demons of their past, though, and he should know as he plays for Real Madrid.
“I know the Spanish have real respect for us, but there is a self-inflicted trauma in the team, it has taken them decades to move beyond the quarter-final of a tournament and that could be a factor,” he said.
“They will respect that, but this is a big game and big games have a different set of laws.”
And Aragones is wary about the Germans, insisting that it won’t be easy repeating their performance against Russia.
“I don’t know whether they (Germany) will let us play that way. If they know where to put pressure on us and how to hurt us they may not allow us to play that way again.
“But it’s very hard for a team to stop us when we move the ball around quickly, they get tired.”
It’s not just Spain concentrating on the mental aspect of this game, though, as Germany team manager Oliver Bierhoff, who scored the winning goal the last time his country won a title, with a golden goal in the 1996 European Championship, said his team also need to overcome certain obstacles.
“The players need to approach the final in a positive mental state without fear,” said Bierhoff.
“Against Croatia, Turkey and Austria, the players were nervous and almost cramped up through fear of losing to a so-called ‘minor nation’.
“Hopefully they can now be liberated against Spain and play the way we know they can.”
Spain are likely to switch from the 4-4-2 system they have used so effectively until now as striker David Villa is out of the final.
That means they may go for the five-man midfield that worked so well against Russia when Villa came off to be replaced by midfielder Fabregas. – AFP
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