Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Raul aims to have last word at finals

Raul's usual goal celebration involves a brief kiss of his wedding ring but this time he careered off to the corner packed with Spanish fans, punched his chest and pointed to the crest on his red shirt.

Moments later the Spain captain was enveloped by every player on his team bar the goalkeeper. It was only the second time he had scored since October.

The goal, a trademark poacher's effort netted on the rebound, cancelled out Tunisia's early lead and restored the confidence of a side running out of ideas about how to break down the North Africans's muscular back four.

Spain proceeded to tear into the Tunisian defence and ran out 3-1 winners courtesy of two late Fernando Torres strikes.

It should not have come as a surprise, but it says much about the predicament of a player who has for so long been the talisman of the Spain team that a single goal meant so much.

Three years ago Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson hailed the Real Madrid striker as the finest player in the world after he scored twice during a 3-1 victory in the first leg of a Champions League quarter-final at the Bernabeu.

"Real buy these big players like Figo, Zidane and Ronaldo but I think the best player in the world is Raul," he said. "I hope he doesn't like travelling. Failing that we will stop him entering the country."


Ironically, a case of acute appendicitis ruled the Spaniard out of the return leg and since then Raul's career has taken a downward turn.

He scored 16 league goals that season and another six in Europe, the following campaign he notched 11, then nine and this term he managed a paltry five.

Real have not won a trophy since 2003, Raul has become increasingly marginalised at the club as foreign galacticos like Ronaldo, David Beckham and Robinho hog the headlines and his form has dipped alarmingly.

Pushed further and further away from goal and expected to play more like a midfielder than a striker, Raul has lost his sharpness, his vision and his spontaneity.

He did beat Alfredo di Stefano's European Cup scoring record by totting up his 51st goal at the start of this season, but that mark was soon erased by Ukraine goal machine Andriy Shevchenko.

Still there was always the outlet of the national team, although even that was threatened by a serious knee injury in November as he miscued a shot during Real's humiliating 3-0 defeat by arch-rivals Barcelona at the Bernabeu.

Instead of taking the more usual course of action and having an operation with the consequent risk missing the World Cup, Raul decided to opt for more conservative treatment in the hope of a rapid recovery.


The gamble paid off as he returned to action a little over three months later, though his form did not. Spending much of the late season on the sidelines at Real, his place in the Spain side even came under question and a subject of national debate.

Although he only turnw 29 later this month his critics believe his career is in terminal decline.

It is not a question of age they say, but rather like a car -- friend and club colleague Fernando Hierro once likened him to a Ferrari -- the number of km accumulated by the engine.

Raul has been playing at an elite level for 12 seasons and has a medal collection, which includes three European Cups, four league titles and two World Club Cups, that would be the envy of most players when they end their careers.

He has twice been top scorer in the European Cup and Primera Liga, he is Spain's all-time top scorer with 44 goals in 97 games and their equal highest marksman at World Cups with five.

But his admirers, and Spain coach Luis Aragones is among them, believe he still has plenty to offer, not just as a player but also because of his importance in captaining the squad.

He has yet to win anything on the international stage for Spain and his goal against Tunisia proved that he still has the ability to decide matches.

"I'm not in as bad a condition as some would like to believe," Raul turned and mumbled to one reporter before the Tunisia match. The whole of Spain hopes he is right


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