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Little guys stand tall for Spain

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One of European soccer's sleeping giants has been stirring over the last couple of weeks, but it took three little men to deliver the slap that confirmed Spain's reawakening.

So much about what makes Spanish football special is down to size. Huge clubs, huge stadiums, huge tradition, huge atmosphere. But the reason the national team now stands one victory away from Euro 2008 glory is a beautiful display of "small ball" by three of its most physically diminutive members.

Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas operated in perfect synch in the Spanish midfield Thursday night, refusing to allow a talented and tenacious Russia get a foothold in a 3-0 semifinal victory.

None of the three men tops 5-foot-8. The profile of Fabregas, the Arsenal midfielder, optimistically lists him at 5-9½ but unless he was wearing high heels at the time, that measurement is either faulty or fabricated.

To Russia, they must have seemed like a swarming trio of pests, intertwining with passing maneuvers with a level of mutual understanding that at times appeared telepathic.

Yet it should be no surprise that these men should be on the same wavelength. All of them have had the same soccer schooling, having been brought up in a Barcelona system that prides itself on promoting individual expression within a team structure.

Xavi and Iniesta have remained at the Catalan club and are two of its most cherished members. Fabregas was pried away by Arsenal to the English Premier League at age 16.

However, from the moment Fabregas was introduced Thursday as a first-half replacement for the injured David Villa, it was like he was back among brothers-in-arms.

"Cesc was fantastic," said Iniesta in the media area at the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna. "The three of us had a great understanding and it didn't take any time to adapt once he came on."

"We are a group that has the same mentality," Xavi said. "We have passing in our DNA. It is what we were raised to do."

Russian midfield star Andrei Arshavin, who looks poised to move to Barcelona after the tournament, never found his usual rhythm. He was routinely stifled by the speed and fluidity of his central adversaries.

"They were very sharp," Russia coach Guus Hiddink admitted of Spain's midfield troika. "They linked up with each other very well and we found it hard to break that up."

Barcelona is a club that seems to derive special pleasure from developing vertically challenged stars.

Incredible as it sounds, many clubs shied away from signing Argentinean superstar Lionel Messi as a boy because of a growth-hormone deficiency that'll prevent him from growing beyond 5-6. But Barca paid for his medical bills, brought his family to Spain, then watched the remarkably gifted youngster develop into one of the world's finest players.

Iniesta and Xavi are both likely to spend their entire careers at Barcelona. It would cost $200 million to enforce the buyout clause in Xavi's contract, while Iniesta has already spurned the interest of Spanish rivals Real Madrid.

Fabregas could have been another Barcelona lifer. But the fact that, as a teenager, he could not see past the two men he stood alongside in midfield on Thursday, partially led to his decision to try his luck with Arsenal.

Even so, it is clear that Barcelona's Blaugrana colors still run through his veins, evidenced by his chilly reaction when Real Madrid came knocking a year ago.

And while Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger and his staff must take credit for spotting Fabregas's ability and giving him a platform to shine, Wenger himself has stated that it was the player's early soccer education that gave the Gunners so much to work with.

With Villa out of Sunday's final, Fabregas is likely to get the starting nod from coach Luis Aragones. If Aragones was in any doubt before, he must surely now appreciate the value of unleashing the little man to combine with his little friends.

"If the boss says I can play, that's better for me," Fabregas said, "but I just want to help my team."