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Valeron saves Spain the blushes

Spain 1 Russia 0

FARO (PORTUGAL), JUNE 13. The stars didn't shine on a clear opening night at Euro 2004. Instead of Raul and Fernando Morientes, Spain was lucky to have Juan Carlos Valeron on Saturday.

Valeron rarely gets a chance to start for star-studded Spain, yet he made the most of his second-half entry against Russia.

Within a minute of replacing the ineffectual Morientes, the forward scored with a clever move and strong drive to give Spain a hard-laboured 1-0 win and the joint lead in Group A.

On Wednesday, Spain faces a Greek side buoyed by its stunning 2-1 upset win over host Portugal, with a place in the quarterfinals at stake.

``Greece is a difficult team which doesn't really have big names but is well organised,'' Spain's coach Inaki Saez said.

He should know. Greece already beat his team 1-0 in the qualifying round and reduced Spain to fight for a backdoor entry to the championship through the play-off round.

``I may be trying out some new tactics,'' Saez said of Wednesday's game.

Russia and Portugal already face elimination when they meet.

And for Russia, the task will be even more difficult after its injury-depleted defence was further hit by the expulsion of Roman Sharonov in the 88th minute. He received a second yellow card for pulling Fernando Torres, the swift replacement of Raul.

Still, Russia does not want to give up just yet, said coach Gueorgui Yartsev.

``Everybody thought this championship could produce unexpected results and Portugal-Greece already showed this. In our group, all teams can produce surprises,'' he said.

Even though Saez called his team's victory more than deserved, Russia came close a couple of times in the first half through Dimitry Alenichev.

Perhaps more worrying for Saez was the poor performance by his top stars Raul and Morientes. He defended their performance, lauding their workrate in the first half-hour, but fans around the world have come to expect more.

If Morientes was near invisible, Raul was not much better on Saturday.

The Real Madrid star was taken off early despite his captaincy, a reflection of his performance at the Algarve Stadium.

Raul has slumped along with his team of `galacticos' in Real Madrid. The club lost in the quarterfinals of the Champions League and was beaten in the last five games of the Spanish Primera Division.

Morientes was perhaps the best striker in Europe this season but his form has also been suspect over the last weeks. He was instrumental in guiding AS Monaco to the final of the European Champions League but was only a shadow of himself during the loss in the final against FC Porto. It makes the fine form of Valeron, Fernando Torres and man-of-the match Vicente all the more important.

A better start

Spain dominated the first half, with Ruben Baraja ruling the midfield and Vicente and Joseba Etxeberria baffling the Russian defence on the wings.

Russia collected a rash of yellow cards as it tried to contain the Spaniards. The match turned when Saez brought on Valeron and Xabi Alonso in the 59th minute. A minute later, Carles Puyol crossed low from the right and Valeron's first contribution was to place the ball calmly past Sergei Ovchinnikov.

"It was quite lucky because it was the first ball I actually touched in the game and it managed to go in," the midfielder said. "I thought we were unlucky not to score in the first half but in the end we kept our heads and getting that goal proved to be vital."

``It's always important to win the first match because it allows you to face the next one with calm,'' said the Canary Islander.

``With Valeron, we had a bit more pressure,'' said Saez. ``I couldn't make that substitution earlier because it would have been suicidal. We always make a substitution like that and it always works.''

It was only the second time Spain had won its opening match in the European Championship since the group phase was introduced in 1980, while Russia went a record-equalling eighth successive match without a win at the finals.

An opening goal almost came in the second minute, when Baraja found Raul in space with a deft through ball. The striker turned to make space but his shot squeezed just wide.

Russia's first attack came in the 16th minute when Marat Izmailov took a pass from Alexander Mostovoi and crossed for Dmitry Bulykin to shoot tamely.

Vicente's drive brought Spain close again after 36 minutes as he rode one late challenge on the edge of the area and crossed. Morientes forced a fine save from Ovchinnikov with a point-blank header and Etxeberria missed the chance to finish off.

Raul should have done better than to head wide when an Etxeberria cross picked him out unmarked seven minutes into the second half. Morientes was substituted after failing to meet another Etxeberria cross.

Russia did not create a single chance to equalise and could have no complaints as Spain held on for a deserved victory.

"Our defeat was mainly due to our nerves. We held out for nearly 60 minutes but in the last 20-30 minutes Spain had a huge advantage over us," Alenichev said. — AP, Reuters

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