Fernando Hierro should call his old Real Madrid pal Zinedine Zidane as Spain face Portugal

Chris Bailey 15/06/2018
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This old Iberian rivalry took a delicious twist on the eve of the World Cup after the Julen Lopetegui dismissal cast a shadow over Spain’s entire campaign.

Put Cristiano Ronaldo, his Real Madrid team-mates and Barcelona rivals on the same pitch, with a dash of Pepe, and fireworks may fly.

Will it result in goals? We’ve picked apart some of the most interesting talking points.

Have-a-go Hierro

KRASNODAR, RUSSIA - JUNE 13:  Fernando Hierro speaks to the media after he was appointed the new head coach of Spain during the Spain Press Conference ahead of the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 on June 13, 2018 in Krasnodar, Russia.  (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)

Can you hear the drums, Fernando? That’ll be the sound of your heartbeat. Mere moments after Julen Lopetegui been booted out of camp for his tryst with Real, a former player whom many Madridistas are still besotted with ascended to the hotseat.

The job could have gone to Albert Celades – the current Under-21 manager – yet it feels like the Spanish federation have employed the best firefighter, if not the best coach, to rescue a campaign that is in danger of being razed to the ground before it even starts.

Hierro, Spain’s answer to Franz Beckenbauer in his pomp, is a totem that a disillusioned Spanish squad can rally around.

There was no point bringing in a Vicente del Bosque or a Luis Enrique on a temporary basis – the tactical implementation had been done far, far in advance of the coming month.

Hierro would do well to call up his old Real chum Zinedine Zidane. In an irony overload the 50-year-old became Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant when Zidane left to coach Madrid’s Castilla side in 2016. Hierro then had a brief stint at Oviedo before his reappointment as Spain’s sporting director last year.

Zidane motivated the Madrid’s Spain contingent to almost impossible heights over the last three years. You better hope those same stars shine bright for you, Fernando.

Ronaldo can rely on both Silva and Guedes

Goncalo Guedes

Andre Silva had scored more goals for Portugal by October than he’d muster for Serie A all season.

On one hand that illustrates how rotten he was in his debut season for AC Milan, and on the other that he’s really rather good when donning his national team’s colours.

Playing alongside Ronaldo, or perhaps at best in the great man’s shadow, Silva has fed well on the bits and pieces left to him from Portugal’s effective, if predictable, play out wide. The 22-year-old has proven the antidote to the country’s epidemic of average-strikers-who-aren’t-called-Ronaldo (though Eder proved okay for that one game in Paris).

There’s a wrinkle in Silva’s World Cup hopes, however, and it goes by the name of Goncalo Guedes. The 21-year-old has sent lightning bolts down on La Mestalla with his wonderful wing play for Valencia on loan from PSG yet intriguingly Portugal coach Fernando Santos, set on playing Ricardo Quaresma and Bernardo on the wings, has played him up top in recent friendlies.

Two goals in the 3-0 win over Algeria has Silva pulling nervously at his collar. Chances are that the Milan misfit, with his superior size and tactical awareness through the centre as a former midfielder, will keep his place in a rigid 4-4-2. Santos will take Guedes over Eder on the bench any day, though.

Attritional battle of Iberia

Portugal's striker Helder Postiga (R) ce

Portugal and Spain have not met on a football battleground for six years yet, even in a three-game cluster when La Roja were at the peak of powers, this clash was never a one-sided affair.

At the World Cup in 2012, the Portuguese missed a hatful of first-half chances with Hugo Almeida (put him in the average strikers bracket) the main culprit. A David Villa goal was the only the difference in the quarter-final.

A few months later Portugal thumped Spain 4-0 in a friendly, a not-so-average Helder Postiga that night rattling in twice, and most recently at Euro 2012 Spain needed penalties before going onto defend their crown.

Undoubtedly, then, Spain have found the going more tough against Portugal and it’s little wonder with the two nations only divided by a border.

It’s not hard to imagine a situation in which Portugal, sat deep to mask their deficiencies at the back and employing a meticulous defensive structure, could rattle a Spanish attack that may be thinking a nanosecond too slow given the tumultuous events of the past few days.

This’ll be an intriguing game – but likely in the absence of many goals.

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Steven Gerrard backs England to overcome World Cup scrutiny

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Steven Gerrard

Former England captain Steven Gerrard believes Gareth Southgate’s players can cope with World Cup scrutiny – even if he claims some of it has already overstepped the mark.

The squad arrived in Russia this week with expectations well below the hype which has accompanied previous tournaments.

Gerrard thinks that could benefit the squad, although he insists players will still be aware they carry the hopes of millions of fans.

“What will help England is I don’t feel there is huge pressure or expectation like previous years,” Gerrard told Press Association Sport.

“But players are aware there is that extra spotlight on them.

“It is on the TV and players have their phones and social media so you are not going to get away from what’s being said at home.

“This is why these players are the best because they should be able to handle the scrutiny and that kind of pressure.”

However, players can find themselves facing attention for other reasons – as witnessed by the focus on Raheem Sterling‘s gun tattoo.

Gerrard said: “I think the treatment of Raheem has been slightly over the top.

“He is a great kid and I think he is playing terrifically well and I’d prefer if people focused on his form on the pitch, that’s what’s important.

“He is going to represent us, so it is disappointing when our people go a little bit over the top but players have to accept that responsibility because you are representing the country.”

Expectations may be lower this time around but Gerrard believes Southgate’s bold approach and decision-making will only benefit the squad.

Southgate made some big calls when selecting his 23-man World Cup squad and he is trying to get his players to take more risks on the pitch.

“I’ve been very impressed with Gareth,” added the new Rangers boss.

“‘Cut-throat’ is a bit too harsh but I like the way he is quite clear in what he wants and the decisions he makes.

“Sometimes in the position as a manager – obviously I am going into the big time as a manager, if you like – you have to make decisions that people don’t like or don’t want but unfortunately that is the business.

“Gareth is definitely capable and has shown he is prepared to make big decisions; whether they are right or wrong only time will tell.

“I certainly think you have to be your own man and you have to have a lot of belief and trust in the staff around you.

“You have to be brave enough to tackle those big issues whatever arises – and I am ready to do that.”

While victory in Russia may be unlikely, Gerrard hopes the team can return with some pride.

“I think it is a big ask (to win) but everyone in the tournament has that fighting chance,” he said.

“With a slice of luck, Gareth’s bravery and some really good players in the squad, I am hoping they will come back and everyone is looking at them proudly.”

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Russia 'on right track' after opening World Cup thrashing of Saudi Arabia

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A five-star performance by Russia.

Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov believes the hosts are on the right track after their 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia but was keen to move on from the result.

It was a scoreline few saw coming as Russia, ranked 70th and without a win in seven games, produced one of the most emphatic opening-day performances in World Cup history at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.

But Cherchesov knows an opening victory does not guarantee progress from the group stage after watching his side beat New Zealand in their Confederations Cup curtain-raiser last year, before successive defeats saw them crash out.

And the former Soviet Union goalkeeper wants to forget all about Thursday’s thumping win ahead of forthcoming clashes with Egypt and Uruguay.

Asked if there was a risk his players could get big-headed after the win, the 54-year-old said: “I don’t think there’s a danger of that, we know why we’re here.

“We went for a walk before the game and we talked about how this tournament is just beginning. OK, we won 5-0 and we got three points but it could have been a draw and only a point – we would still have to get out of the group.

“We won our first game at (last summer’s) Confederations Cup and it didn’t take us too far. So we’re on the right track but we should turn the page and forget this game.”

Cherchesov took a phone call during his post-match press conference before telling reporters it had been president Vladimir Putin asking him to thank his players for the win.

Attention in the host country now turns to Russia’s encounter with Egypt on Tuesday and the expectation levels will surely now go off the charts.

Cherchesov is well aware of that and he warned fans that Russia’s World Cup is like a “crescendo” with each game getting tougher.

He also admitted that Egypt with Mohamed Salah is a different proposition to Egypt without him and Cherchesov said he would be watching Friday’s game with added interest to see if the Liverpool star has really recovered from his shoulder injury.

Saudi Arabia’s Spanish coach Juan Antonio Pizzi did not try to sugar-coat his side’s defeat.

He said: “Results like this don’t happen very often in World Cups and we need to recover from this shameful situation.

“I trust my efforts, I trust my players and I fully trust that we’ll have a better performance in the next game.”

Russia’s win lifted the curtain on a long-awaited tournament which began with a vibrant opening ceremony in which singer Robbie Williams showed his middle finger to the camera.

The hosts dominated from the off, opening the scoring through Yury Gazinsky before substitute Denis Cheryshev grabbed his first just before the break.

Another substitute – Artem Dzyuba – made it 3-0 in the 71st minute before late goals from Cheryshev and Aleksandr Golovin added to the scoreline.

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