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The Spanish dilemma is no nearer to being resolved. How a talented football power such as Spain has never progressed beyond the quarter-finals has long been a mystery, but unconvincing wins against first Tunisia and on Friday Saudi Arabia – neither teams that normally make the opposition tremble in their boots – suggest even this latest crop could struggle.

Such an outcome scarcely seemed conceivable after the impressive 4-0 drubbing they handed out to Ukraine in the opening match and it is true that with this victory Spain qualify for the knockout stage, top of their group. It would be harsh to go overboard about a performance by what was their second-string side, but a disgusted-looking coach Luis Aragonés was forced to bring on several first-choice players as fans (many – even the men – clad in flamenco dresses) started to whistle.

The crowd only truly became animated as “Viva España” played at the end. In part, Spain had clearly underestimated a Saudi Arabian side who no longer belong to the league of embarrassments.

They played organised football, have a goalkeeper in Mabrouk Zaid who single-handedly kept them in the game and were robust in the tackle. So robust in fact that Antonio López lost his boot in an early foul. They also showed they had learnt many of the worst habits from classier teams, such as unnecessary backheels (Khaled Aziz had to go off injured after a particularly stupid one) and diving.

But after a first half in which Spain often flattered to deceive, Saudi Arabia suddenly sensed this was not to be the walkover anticipated. Indeed, if it were not for a rather soft goal conceded from a corner and ensuing direct header from Juanito, this could have been a lot worse for Spain.

None of a talented bunch of second-stringers – among them Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas and José Antonio Reyes, and Real Madrid’s Raúl – looked like they wanted to challenge for places. And even when David Villa and Fernando Torres, the strike pair who so impressed against Ukraine, came on little changed.

Spanish play got increasingly sloppy with poor and mistimed balls in attack and some frankly astounding defending.

A team with a better striker than Saudi Arabia could have taken far more advantage of this raggedness. Sami Al Jaber wasted two chances when clean through against the goalkeeper. Saad Al Harthi missed the best chance in the 89th minute, managing to blast the ball well over the bar.

Perhaps the best analysis of what this match offered came before the game even began. A Spanish fan on the train to Kaiserslautern said: “We always play beautiful football before losing in the quarter-final. I’m not sure it’s going to be different this time.”

SHEVCHENKO PENALTY DASHES TUNISIAN HOPES

Job done for Ukraine, who move on to a last-16 tie against the winner of Group G after a comfortable, if uninspiring, 1-0 victory over Tunisia, writes Jonathan Wilson.

The game turned on two penalty decisions, one given and one not. Zied Jaziri clearly dived in the box after nine minutes and deserved his yellow card, a decision that was to have serious consequences when he collected a second booking for a lunge on Anatoliy Tymoschuk on the stroke of half-time and was sent off. The case of Andriy Shevchenko 20 minutes from full-time was rather less clear-cut. He was certainly nudged as he burst between Karim Haggui and the goalkeeper Ali Boumnijel, but it seemed to be his own foot catching his heel that tripped him. Carlos Amarilla, the Paraguayan referee, saw enough contact to point to the spot, and Shevchenko calmly sidefooted home his second goal of the tournament.

The new Chelsea signing is looking sharper with every game as he recovers from a knee injury, and, with Tymoschuk increasingly secure in front of the defence, there are signs that Ukraine, after their dreadful start to the tournament, could yet have a significant part to play in their first World Cup.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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