The World Cup is only two days old but fans can already look forward to a highly-anticipated clash between two of the tournament’s biggest names as Spain and Portugal meet in Sochi.
The Iberian rivals open their Group B campaign at Fisht Stadium in the Russian Black Sea resort, in a game that features numerous subplots that add to the intrigue.
Spain’s World Cup preparations were thrown into turmoil just two days ahead of the match against Portugal, with news that manager Julen Lopetegui had been sacked.
Lopetegui had been announced as Zinedine Zidane’s replacement at Real Madrid on Tuesday, with the Spaniard originally set to take over after the World Cup in a deal reportedly done behind the backs of the Spanish FA.
The move unsurprisingly angered the Spanish football authorities, who felt they had no choice but to fire a coach who had gone undefeated in his 20 games and two years as coach.
Director of football Fernando Hierro – a veteran of 89 caps for the national team during his playing career – has stepped in to replace Lopetegui.
However, Hierro is relatively inexperienced at top management level, having only served as an assistant under Carlo Ancelotti at former club Real and as manager at lower division Oviedo.
Spain captain Sergio Ramos – who had reportedly pleaded with officials to grant Lopetegui a reprieve – stormed out of a pre-match press conference on Thursday, describing the atmosphere as “like a funeral.”
The game against Portugal will serve as a good indicator of the impact of the Lopetegui scandal on the team, and Spanish fans will hope the row has not killed their World Cup chances before a ball is even kicked.
RONALDO UP AGAINST FAMILIAR FACES
Preparations have been far from ideal for Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo, after news emerged shortly before kick-off that he had been hit with a two-year suspended prison sentence and an €18 million fine for failing to follow Spanish tax laws.
Ronaldo will come up against a number of familiar faces in Sochi in the form of his Real Madrid teammates playing in the red of Spain. Real defender Ramos and will captain the Spanish team, and Ronaldo could also face Lucas Vazquez, Nacho, Dani Carvajal, and Isco and Marco Asensio.
Particularly interesting will be the battle between Ronaldo and Ramos, two players who have got to know each other’s games inside out during the years the Portuguese has been at Real, during which time the pair have won every club honor on offer.
For Ronaldo, Russia 2018 could be his last chance to shine at a World Cup after largely disappointing campaigns at his previous three tournaments in Germany, South Africa and Brazil, which brought a paltry four-goal return for the normally prolific striker.
Jose Mourinho has said that this will be Ronaldo’s last World Cup – despite the Portugal star’s claims that he feels like a 23-year-old – and coming out on top in the battle against his Real teammates would be a marker for a strong tournament in Russia.
HISTORY AGAINST PORTUGAL
If Portugal are to get their World Cup campaign off to a wining start they will have to overturn the weight of history, with the head to head between the two Iberian rivals heavily favouring their larger neighbors.
Spain have won 16 of the 35 games played between the pair down the years, with six wins for the Portuguese and 13 draws.
Spain prevailed on penalties in the last big tournament meeting between the two, knocking Portugal out of the 2012 European Championship semi-finals in Ukraine on their way to winning the tournament.
The Spaniards also beat Portugal en route to World Cup glory in South Africa in 2010, winning 1-0 in the last 16.
Portugal, however, go into the Russia World Cup as reigning European champions, and manager Fernando Santos will look to use the same formula that was so effective in France two years ago.
Despite an aging defence, the Portuguese remain a solid team which appear more creative than in France, with midfielder Bernardo Silva in particular blooming into a creative force.
They will be comfortable to allow Spain the ball in non-danger areas, in the knowledge that they are unlikely to compete with Iniesta and co. in a possession-based game, but they will attempt to break quickly on the counterattack through Ronaldo.
SPAIN SLOW STARTERS
Spain have suffered opening game defeats in each of their last two World Cups, suffering a shock 1-0 defeat to Switzerland in 2010 and being on the end of a 5-1 hammering against the Netherlands in Brazil.
The latter result proved an ominous sign as the defending champions tumbled out at the group stage, although La Roja suffered few ill effects from their defeat to the Swiss, going on to win the tournament in South Africa for their maiden World Cup triumph.
In South Africa, however, the camp was far more stable. Given the backdrop of the Lopetegui scandal leading into Friday’s game, a winning start this time appears even more important for Spain.