The marquee game of the group stages of the 21 st FIFA World Cup is already upon us. On Friday night, a day after the official beginning, Russia 2018 will truly heat up when European Champions Portugal take on former Euro and World Cup champions Spain in the much-awaited Group B encounter at Sochi. Here is the World Cup 2018 preview for the match:
Nicknames: Selecao, La Roja
Indian Standard Time: 11.30 PM
It’s not the players – or the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo will square off against Real Madrid teammate Sergio Ramos on the pitch. Spain’s coach Julen Lopetegui was fired two days before the team’s first game after he was announced as the new coach of the Real Madrid team. The Spanish football federation was furious, citing that he had gone behind their backs and broken contract (he was signed on to coach Spain till 2020). This means that Spain will now be helmed by sporting director Fernando Hierro on the eve of their game against Portugal. The 2010 World Champions have faced their first crisis before even kicking a single ball.
The “Iberian Derby” isn’t as common on the World Cup stage as it should be. Till 2008, the two teams were officially the most underperforming European teams in the history of the sport. Then Spain broke the jinx, won a World Cup enveloped by two Euro Championships, before Portugal shocked everyone by winning the 2016 Euro Championships in France. They are no more trophy-less teams, but Portugal’s “golden generation” (in 1966, 2004) won a lot less than Spain’s golden generation.
Shockingly, the two have faced each other only once in World Cups – a round of 16 match in the 2010 World Cup which Spain won 1-0 before going on to make history and win their first ever Jules Rimet trophy. In the four matches played between the two at major tournaments (Euro, World Cups), only four goals have been scored – an indication that the rivalry is a perfect balance of attacking and defensive mindsets.
Portugal actually went till the semifinals of Euro 2016 without winning a match in regulation time – they drew thrice in the group stages, qualified as the best third-placed team, and then defeated Croatia and Poland in extra-time and penalties in the knockouts. They then defeated Wales in the semifinals and hosts France in extra-time in the Final.
Since 2016, after the retirement legendary coach Vincente del Bosque, two years after Spain became the “worst defending World Cup champions” in the sport while crashing out without winning a game at the 2014 World Cup, the team has enjoyed a mini-revival of sorts. Under Lopetegui, Spain had gone unbeaten, winning 14 and drawing 6 its 20 games – this included 9 wins out of 10 in their World Cup qualifying group. In their warmups for Russia, they drew with Switzerland and defeated Tunisia, and looked to be on course to enter their group as favourites. But the sacking of their coach is bound to affect them, especially given the fact that captain Sergio Ramos and the others wanted him to stay till the end of the tournament. Spain were looked at as old horses who had gone past their sell-by date, struggling with transition after a golden era, until they made a resounding statement by defeating Argentina 6-1 in a friendly in March this year. They are a technically strong team, filled with players from Real Madrid and Barcelona.
X-factor: Spain’s ageing midfield of Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets present the perfect big-stage experience to orchestrate the game against a Pepe-led defense.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who was involved in 15 goals in Portugal’s successful qualifying campaign, has to be in peak form if Portugal are to pull off an upset. Portugal have won 13, drawn 4 and lost 3 of their last 20 games – this includes 9 wins and 1 loss in the WC qualifying group (they lost to Switzerland, but qualified ahead of them on goal difference). What will rankle Fernando Santos is the fact that Portugal’s attack has struggled to breach quality team defenses – like against Belgium last week and Netherlands in March. In fact, they lost 3-0 to Netherlands, a team that failed to qualify for this World Cup. They will be slightly more confident though, after defeating Algeria 3-0 in their final warmup game. They placed third in last year’s Confederation’s Cup in Russia – losing to Chile in the semifinals on penalties, but defeating Mexico in the third-place playoff. So they do have experience in these conditions, and Ronaldo will want to prove a point on the biggest stage – four years after Messi came close to doing so.
X-factor: The attack consisting of Ronaldo and Andre Silva are expected to pose problems to any side in the World Cup. Portugal love being the underdog – and if they can’t beat a side, you can be sure that they will
make it awfully difficult to beat them. A win against giants Spain will go a long way in setting the tone for the massive tournament.
Prediction: 1-1 draw.
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