Already perhaps the most attractive of the opening matches in group play, Friday’s contest between eternal rivals Spain and Portugal has been turned on its head following the stunning sacking of Spain coach Julen Lopetegui.
The 2010 World Cup champions were blindsided Tuesday when Lopetegui announced he would be the next coach of Real Madrid, the reigning three-time Champions League winner, following the surprise departure of Zinedine Zidane from the Spanish club.
Furious with being left in the dark and upstaged 72 hours before La Roja’s opening contest, Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales flew from Moscow where he was supposed to cast his vote for the 2026 World Cup host to the team’s training headquarters in Krasnodar and fired Lopetegui despite the pleas of his players following a two-hour meeting.
In Lopetegui’s place will be technical director Fernando Hierro, a former standout defender for the national team whose lone coaching experience was one season at Oviedo in La Segunda. The backroom staff also will have a makeover as Lopetegui’s assistants Pablo Sanz and Oscar Caro also left the squad.
While Spain is a veteran side, Lopetegui’s timing could not have been worse as it faces one of the world’s best players in Cristiano Ronaldo. He is making his fourth World Cup appearance, having scored one goal in each of his previous three appearances, and looking to atone for the Selecao’s group exit from the 2014 edition.
The sting of that disappointing performance erased two years ago when Ronaldo and Portugal emerged as surprising winners of the 2016 European Championship in France. But there are questions of how much the 33-year-old Ronaldo can give after the grind of the regular season with Real Madrid on top of the cumulative grind of a standout career for club and country.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Spain stormed through Group G in European qualifying, finishing five points clear of Italy as it claimed 28 of the 30 available points and outscored opponents 36-3 as part of Lopetegui’s overall 14-6-0 mark while guiding La Roja. There was balanced scoring throughout the qualifying process as Diego Costa, David Silva, Isco and Alvaro Morata each had five goals.
The 2008 and 2012 European champions also got another four goals from Vitolo as 12 different players bagged a goal in qualifying. This is the 10th consecutive World Cup appearance for Spain, which crashed out in the group stage in Brazil as defending champion. La Roja have not missed out on back-to-back knockout rounds since a three tournament run in 1962, 1966 and 1978.
Portugal avoided the drama of a two-legged playoff this time around, finsihing atop Group B on goal difference over fellow qualifiers Switzerland while outscoring teams 32-4. Ronaldo ran riot in those 10 matches, racking up 15 goals, while Andre Silva emerged as his strike partner with another nine markers.
This is Portgual’s fifth consecutive World Cup appearance, having mixed results in the previous four with two group exits and highlighted by a fourth-place finish in 2006. The Navigators’ best finish remains their third-place showing in 1966 led by the great Eusebio.
Spain is expected to use a 4-2-3-1 approach, with Sergio Busquets sitting in front of the back four to begin the buildup through midfield similar to how his new coach did a generation ago. Andres Iniesta will pull the strings in the midfield along with David Silva, while Diego Costa and his pantomime villain routine will come across his equal in fellow antagonist Pepe on Portugal’s backline.
La Roja have four players in their starting XI with at least 100 international appearances in Sergio Ramos (152), Iniesta (127), David Silva (121) and Busquets (103). Ramos’ partner in central defense, Gerard Pique, is two caps shy of the century mark.
Portugal will use a more traditional 4-4-2 set-up, with the challenge coming in maintaining possession and hitting Spain on the counter through the flanks. The Selecao’s midfield took a hit when FC Porto’s Danilo Pereira was lost to an Achilles injury playing for his club, and Renato Sanches, named the best young player at the European Championship, struggled so badly over the past two seasons he did not make the team.
In addition being Portugal’s top goal-scorer with 81, Ronaldo is the Selecao’s most capped player with 150 international appearances. Moutinho is the only other centurion on Portugal’s side with 110, though the central defense tandem of Bruno Alves and Pepe could join them if the Navigators get out of group play as they enter Russia with 96 and 95 caps, respectively.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Spain – Andres Iniesta (MF)
After bringing his time at Barcelona to a close with a ninth La Liga title, the 34-year-old Iniesta continues to be the linchpin of Spain’s possession-based offense. There is no wasted effort in any of his actions on and off the ball as he will poke and prod Spain’s defense in finding the smallest of creases to exploit for his teammates.
Portugal – Andre Silva (F)
For all the talk and praise of Ronaldo, Portugal’s chances of advancing to the knockout round may hinge on the 22-year-old Silva, who already has 12 goals in 23 international appearances. The AC Milan striker had three match-winning goals in World Cup qualifying and also opened the scoring in Portugal’s 2-2 friendly versus Tunisia in the run-up to the World Cup.
RUMORED TO MOVE
Iniesta’s move from Barcelona to Japanese side Vissel Kobe was already confirmed, and the annual rumors regarding keeper David De Gea moving from Manchester United to Real Madrid have again started. Rodrigo, who plays for Valencia, has been linked with both Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich, while midfielder Thiago could be in play for Barcelona.
On the Portuguese side, the unrest taking place at Sporting Lisbon has created an exodus that involves starters Rui Patricio, Bruno Fernandes and William. The trio all filed to end their contracts with the club and will be pursued to various degrees on the transfer market, and Ronaldo has dropped subtle and not-so-subtle hints he may be keen to leave Real Madrid for the final club act of his career.
Per Ladbrokes, Spain is listed as 21-20 favorites while Portugal check in with 14-5 odds. The match ending at a draw is 11-5. For first goal-scorers, Diego Costa edges out Ronaldo as the favorite, with the Atli forward checking in at 7-2, closely followed by Ronaldo and Spain’s Rodrigo at 4-1.
If there was one team which can absorb a shock, it is Spain, though the firing of Lopetegui 48 hours before their World Cup opener is a sizable one. La Roja, however, are a veteran cohesive squad that practically run themselves on the pitch. The only weakness continues to be a low rate of return on goals with so much possessions, but Spain does not lack for options in trying to find the combination that will provide those goals.
That is where Hierro’s personnel management will be scrutinized. He has been around the team as technical director, but having the feel to make substitutions on the fly from the touchline is an entirely different situation.
And facing an eternal rival in Portugal does not help the situation. Ronaldo instantly makes the European Championship winner dangerous, and the Navigators’ 3-0 win over Algeria in their final World Cup tune-up has this team in the right frame of mind.
While he may not be in the starting XI for Portugal, winger Ricardo Quaresma may emerge as a swing vote in this match. He has the ability to make things happen on the flank, and given how Spain will likely dominate possession through the middle of the field, if the Selecao can get the ball to him quickly on the counter, Quaresma than can provide service for both Ronaldo and Andre Silva.
It’s tempting to say the distraction of Lopetegui’s firing will lead to on-pitch issues for Spain, but look for La Roja to have put it all behind them and emerge with a 2-1 victory.