Raul with the punches

 

Emmet Malone profiles the striker capable of destroying Irish hopes. After a carrer littered with bizarre controversies and dubious calls, Athletico Madrid's infamous president Jesus Gils may have successfully managed to avoid developing any real capacity for genuine self-criticism.

Not even he, though, denies that his decision nearly 10 years ago to save his club some money by closing down its youth academy was one of the most costly blunders in recent Spanish footballing history.

At the time, the academy boasted a particularly promising young midfielder from the southern precincts of the Spanish capital. Raul Gonzalez had already made a considerable impression on the club's youth coaches, but with Gils determined to cut corners the teenager was released, allowing arch rivals Real to step in and snap the youngster up.

No club spends more on established stars than Real but by the age of 17 Raul was reckoned to be ready for first team football at the Bernabeu. His debut came as a substitute for Emilio Butragueno in a league game and even in those early days there were signs of the drive and confidence that led his first coach at the club, Jorge Valdano, to describe him as having "the self-control of someone who has lived three lives".

In the eight seasons since his senior club debut, the 24-year-old, who plays almost all of his football as a striker these days, has won admiration from around the world. The fear of having him stolen away prompted his employers to insert a €190 million buy-out clause in his contract, but there is little threat of him leaving a club whose spending on the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Figo continues to dwarf its rivals on the European stage.

The early departure from the competition of his highly regarded Real team-mates, however, has again intensified the pressure on a player who, at Euro 2000, missed a penalty against France that would have pushed a quarter-final tie into extra-time.

Now, with France, Argentina and Portugal already out, there is a growing sense within the Spanish camp that their time at this competition may finally have come. Only once before have they gone beyond the last eight, but their first-round wins, in which Raul played a key role, have generated a good deal of confidence, little of which has been diminished by the way the second round draw has worked out for them.

Before the team's opening game against Slovenia (a 3-1 victory), Spanish coach Jose Camacho said it was time for Raul "to start pulling the cart", and he has shown signs of rising to the manager's challenge with his three first-round goals representing only a small part of his contribution to the efforts so far.

Having seen him in action in Spain's 3-2 victory over South Africa, Mick McCarthy described him as "brilliant", adding: "He has that ability to drop into the 'hole', to operate just in front of the midfield and then spring into the box that makes him incredibly hard to deal with." It is an ability that defenders across Europe have struggled with for several seasons.

On his day, Raul comes pretty close to being the perfect striker. He is fast and strong, immensely gifted at running at defenders from outside the box but equally magical when given the slightest room inside the area. His lack of height - he is just 5ft 9in - may limit the threat he poses in the air, but he is still a good header of the ball, something he may get a chance to demonstrate tomorrow if Spain's wide midfielders win their battles out on the flanks.

Even if things do not go well for the Spanish in Suwon, Raul has an ability to turn games for his side, as demonstrated time and again for Real, with whom he has already won three Champions Leagues.

"There are extremely few players who manage to impose themselves when conditions are against them," said former Spanish international Pep Guardiola a couple of years back. "Raul is one of these exceptions. And in the area he's merciless; no one finishes like him." The statistics support the former Barcelona skipper's remarks, with Raul twice having finished as the top scorer in Europe's strongest league - he ended the club's unsuccessful 2001 Champions League campaign as the competition's top scorer with seven goals despite not having found the net once in the opening stages.

Still, his strike-rate of roughly a goal every two games for his country tends to obscure the fact that precious view of them have come in big games against teams of real stature.

A bit of a famine for Real during the second half of the season may also have raised fears that he would again prove something of a disappointment when it mattered on the international stage. His form over the past couple of weeks suggests otherwise, but tomorrow's game represents the first, and maybe the last, of his really big tests at these World Cup finals.