SPORTS

Reshuffle expected for Spain

FALPERRA, Portugal – After a grueling victory against Russia, pressure mounted yesterday on Spanish coach Inaki Saez to make changes to his starting lineup for the match against Greece, with first-game substitutes Juan Carlos Valeron and Xabi Alonso among the favorites to start. Spain was only able to break the 0-0 deadlock against Russia on Saturday when coach Inaki Saez brought on the two midfielders in the 59th minute. Within seconds, Valeron had slammed the ball into the back of the net for the only goal of the Group A game. The changes reignited the clamor for Saez to reconsider the makeup of his first team, particularly regarding Valeron, the Deportivo striker considered by many as one of Spain’s most talented players, and to end his unwavering reliance on striking duo Raul Gonzalez and Fernando Morientes. «I want to play [against Greece] but everyone is here to help, whether it be from the beginning or as a substitute,» said the forward from the Canary Islands who will turn 29 the day after the match. «I want to help in any way I can, but it is up to the coach to decide what’s best for the team.» Valeron has often proven to be a bewitching player, with surprise angled passes to wreak havoc with defenses. But detractors say he has too often failed on the international stage and point to his weak-kneed performances in the 2002 World Cup. Saez, however, is aware that Spain lost 1-0 against Greece when they last met in the qualifiers last June, with Raul and Morientes up front. In contrast, the previous September it beat the Greeks 2-0 using Valeron directly behind Raul as center-forward, and both players scored. Also in the last pre-tournament friendly against Andorra, the Raul-led first team played stodgily while second-half substitutes, among them Valeron, delighted spectators with the Deportivo striker scoring for a 4-0 victory. Some say Valeron’s main failing is his perceived incompatibility with Raul, the squad’s all-time highest scorer and the undisputed cornerstone of the team. Raul, however, comes off a dismal season with Real Madrid and could well need a rest. For tomorrow, Saez is also expected to start Real Sociedad’s Alonso instead of Valencia’s Ruben Baraja, who has a yellow card, will be wanted for the last match against Portugal. Alonso’s and Valeron’s entry against Russia greatly speeded up Spain’s midfield-to-forward play, a factor that the players believe will be vital against the Greeks.