With #SpainvsPortugal, we get to have dessert before finishing the starters

Published: June 15, 2018
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With the reigning European champions set to go against the winners of the 2010 edition, group stage encounters cannot get any bigger than this.

Imagine getting the chance to have your dessert before you are even properly done with the starters. Now that is precisely how the Friday night derby at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi feels like. The FIFA World Cup in Russia would barely be a day-old, when Portugal and Spain lock their horns to determine which one of the two Iberian rivals would proceed to the next round as the likely winner from Group B.

With the reigning European champions set to go against the winners of the 2010 edition, group stage encounters cannot get any bigger than this. Historically though, Spain has always had the upper hand, with 18 victories, 12 draws and only six losses in 36 matches against Portugal. The last time these two neighbours met was in the semi-final of Euro 2012, where La Furia Roja advanced to the final following penalties. They later went on to lift the trophy by beating Italy in the final.

Jesus Navas, Sergio Ramos and Andres Iniesta of Spain celebrate the winning penalty during the UEFA EURO 2012 semi final match between Portugal and Spain at Donbass Arena on June 27, 2012 in Donetsk, Ukraine. Photo: Getty

The odds were in Spain’s favour but the abrupt sacking of Coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the World Cup, could potentially throw a spanner in the works. Lopetegui was shockingly dismissed following the news of him becoming the new Real Madrid boss. The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) claimed they were completely unaware of this particular development and had to sack the 51-year-old because the negotiation occurred “without any information to the RFEF”. Spain Sporting Director Fernando Hierro will now take charge for the World Cup.

Spain’s coach Julen Lopetegui stands during the friendly football match between Spain and Tunisia at Krasnodar’s stadium on June 9, 2018. Photo: AFP

There were reports that the Spanish players were in favour of Lopetegui staying on for the duration of the tournament, so his dismissal after a hugely successful two-year period would surely leave Spain in a worse position than they were before this whole fiasco.

With two European Cups and a World Cup, Vicente Del Bosque’s eight-year reign was the golden-era for Spanish football. Lopetegui with his impressive record as the national team coach was potentially on his way to emulate Del Bosque, but for now, he would only have to make do watching his former team perform under Hierro from afar.

The new coach of the Spanish national football team, Fernando Hierro (C), attends a training session at Krasnodar Academy on June 13, 2018, ahead of the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament. Photo: AFP

Heading into the tournament, the Spaniards won nine and drew one of the 10 qualifying games, while Portugal had to book their spot in Russia after narrowly avoiding the play-offs, when they edged out Switzerland on the final day. So Spain does have momentum on their side, but again with huge question marks over how quickly the new coach can have the squad firing on all cylinders.

Portugal’s forward Andre Silva (17) celebrates with teammates after scoring during the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying football match between Portugal and Switzerland at the Luz stadium in Lisbon, Portugal on October 10, 2017. Photo: Getty

In terms of personnel, Spain is blessed with the majestic midfield of Andres Iniesta and David Silva, along with David De Gea, arguably the best goalkeeper in the world, between the sticks.

Portugal, on the other hand, can boast the current World Player Of The Year, Cristiano Ronaldo, amongst its ranks. The Portuguese legend might be getting on in terms of age, but inside the box he is still as lethal as ever.

Andres Iniesta of Spain runs with the ball during the International Friendly match between Spain and Switzerland at Estadio de La Ceramica on June 3, 2018 in Villareal, Spain. Photo: Getty

David De Gea of Spain reacts during the international friendly match between Spain and Argentina at Wanda Metropolitano stadium on March 27, 2018 in Madrid, Spain. Photo: Getty

Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal reacts during the friendly match of preparation for FIFA 2018 World Cup between Portugal and Algeria at the Estadio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica on June 7, 2018 in Lisboa, Portugal. Photo: Getty

This particular encounter is also significant for both Spain and Portugal since it could go a long way in banishing the memories of their collective exits from the last World Cup.

Portugal were trashed 4-0 by Germany in their opening match before being eliminated from the group stages due to the worse goal difference to the United States, who finished second behind the Germans.

Spain, on the hand, were caught up in a nightmare of their own. Their first game against the Netherlands ended in a 1-5 drubbing which was such a shock to their collective system that the defending world champions ended up exiting the tournament at the first hurdle.

With Morocco and Iran forming the rest of the set, the winner from the first match between Portugal and Spain would surely emerge from the first round as Group B winner. The prize at stake is a round-of-16 tie against the runners-up from Group A, with likely opponents being either Russia or Egypt, two of the weakest teams in the tournament on paper.

My prediction though is that it will be a 1-1 draw, which will keep things interesting till the last match for Group B.

So with a mouth-watering clash to kick start the World Cup fever, let’s just sit back, relax and enjoy the whole ride.

Expected lineups:

Portugal:

Formation: 4-2-2-2

Rui Patrício – Cédric Soares, José Fonte, Pepe, Raphaël Guerreiro – Ricardo Carvalho, João Moutinho – Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva – Gonçalo Guedes, Ronaldo

Spain:

Formation: 4-3-2-1

De Gea – César Azpilicueta, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba – Thiago Alcântara, Sergio Busquets, Iniesta – Isco, Silva – Diego Costa

Hassan Sardar

Hassan Sardar

The author is an aspiring filmmaker and a diehard Liverpool fan. He also teaches Screenwriting and Cinematography, and loves tattoos and flip-flops. He tweets as @CineSardar (twitter.com/CineSardar)

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