SPORTS

Spanish coach prays for N. Ireland ‘heroics’

MADRID (Reuters) – Coach of the Spanish soccer team Inaki Saez is praying for last-day heroics from Northern Ireland to help his side clinch a direct qualifying place for Euro 2004. Spain’s 2-1 win over Ukraine on Wednesday was enough to keep the side second in Group 6, a point behind Greece, and guarantee them at least a place in the playoffs for the finals in Portugal. To claim first place and automatic entry into the finals, Spain will need a better result than the leaders in the last round of matches on October 11, when Spain are away to Armenia and Greece are at home to Northern Ireland. The Northern Irish team has already held both Spain and Ukraine to draws in this qualifying competition and Saez has not yet given up hope of pipping the Greeks to top spot. «We have to wait to see if Greece slips up to give us the chance to win the group,» Saez told the Marca newspaper after the game. «There’s a month to go before the final games and in that time we’ll be living in hope of an act of heroism from Northern Ireland.» Spain lost control of the group with a defeat at home to Greece and a draw away to Northern Ireland in the space of four days in June. The team recovered their poise by beating Portugal 3-0 in a friendly last weekend and got back in the hunt for a finals place thanks to Wednesday’s win over Ukraine. Once again, Spain was well below its best, but two goals from forward Raul, who had been under fire lately over some indifferent performances, ensured it did just enough to gain the three points.