Spain favourites to sweep into semi-finals

JOHANNESBURG - European champions Spain are strong favourites to sweep into the Confederations Cup semi-finals and should extend their winning run against Iraq in Wednesday's Group A match in Bloemfontein.

A 5-0 opening win over New Zealand on Sunday, inspired by a hat-trick in the first 17 minutes from striker Fernando Torres, emphasised Spain's class.

Three more points against the Asian champions would mean Spain equalled the longest consecutive winning run in FIFA's record books.

That mark currently stands at 14 wins and is shared by Australia (1996-97), Brazil (1997) and France (2003-04).

Spain's win over New Zealand was their 13th successive victory and if a 34th game unbeaten would move them within one match of FIFA's world record mark of 35 games established by Brazil between 1993 and 1996.

Another three points would see Spain into the last four.

Iraq midfielder Nashat Akram said an opportunity to share the field with the big names of Spain was a dream for the players.

"We are so proud to be in this competition and to get a chance to be on the pitch with the stars. It will be a very tough game, they have so many quality players. We'll do our best," he told Reuters.

EARLY EXIT

However, for hosts South Africa the spectre of an early exit looms after their goalless draw with Iraq on Sunday.

Bafana Bafana, heavily criticised for a negative approach to the match, need to beat New Zealand at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in Rustenburg to get back on course for a semi-final place.

Coach Joel Santana hinted at changes for Wednesday's Group A match, including a return to the starting line-up for midfielder Steven Pienaar.

"I'm looking at a few new options," the Brazilian-born coach said. "If we beat New Zealand I think we can make the semi-final, but they are big and physical and will be dangerous."

It will be the first soccer meeting in 62 years between the two countries, whose rugby rivalry is one of the most intense in the world but whose footballing prowess is rather more limited.

The top two finishers in the group advance to next week's semi-finals. The final set of group matches is scheduled for Saturday.