What now for Spain?
After the shattering developments of the last couple of days, unexpectedly losing their manager on the eve of the World Cup Finals, surely La Roja’s hopes of taking the title in Russia have disappeared?
Surely rookie coach Fernando Hierro, who has practically no managerial experience and is totally unprepared for the task, will not be able to smooth over the wide cracks which have appeared this week and serenely lead his team through the toughest tournament in international sport?
Surely we can write off Spain’s chances?
Not so fast. The good news is that if any team is built to survive this week’s revulsion, it is this Spanish side.
As he acknowledged during his frantically arranged unveiling on Wednesday evening, Hierro is taking over a team which is fully functioning, and he is completely correct to state that he will not attempt to change the work of two years in the space of two days.
The leader has gone, but the players remain. And the players, without doubt, are still among the most talented groups of all the World Cup squads. Nothing about Lopetegui’s departure will change that.
In fact, it wasn’t really even Lopetegui’s team. Sure, he had freshened things up in a few positions since the disappointments of Euro 2016 and the 2014 World Cup under predecessor Vicente del Bosque, but all the now-departed coach really did was steady the Spanish ship onto the path it had been following for several years.
Spain’s style of play, famous around the world, is very much based on the short-passing, high-pressing, possession-based style they have consistently employed throughout the last decade.
Many of the players, of course, have been active passengers on the journey for much of that period. With Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique at the back, and Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and David Silva in midfield, there is quality and experience oozing throughout the squad.
Even the ‘newcomers’ into the set-up – players like David De Gea, Isco and Koke – are all proven at the highest level, and the professionalism, discipline and focus of these players should be enough to let them forget the managerial sparks that have been flying above their heads this week.
The team more or less picks itself, with only the striker position up undecided as Diego Costa vies for a starting slot against other options Iago Aspas and Rodrigo, but that would have been a question for Lopetegui to solve just as much as it is now Hierro’s. Same problem, different solver.
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Other than that, though, Hierro doesn’t really have any decisions to make. We know how Spain will play, we know who will be in their team, and none of that will be affected by Lopetegui’s departure.
Sooner or later, of course, Hierro will have to act. He will have to make substitutions, replace injured players and tweak the strategy. And although that will be his biggest test, there’s no reason to assume that he won’t be able to rise to the challenge.
Although he is a relative coaching novice, Hierro’s deep experience in the game as a top-class player (more than 600 appearances for Real Madrid and 89 international caps for Spain), an assistant coach (won the 2016 Champions League with Real Madrid) and more recently as an administrator (the Spanish federation’s sporting director) mean that he has seen everything there is to see in football.
Hierro will also be able to command the respect of his new players, who recognise him as ‘one of their own’ – a former player who knows exactly what they are going through and has their best interests at heart.
There will also be no problem with motivating the players, who know they are competing for the biggest prize in football – many of them for the last time. Indeed, this week’s upheaval might even prove helpful in bringing the playing group even closer, fostering the ‘us against the world’ mentality which can be so powerful.
So Spain have the players, they have the motivation and they have the tactical structure. They don’t have a proper manager, but perhaps the next few weeks will show that they don’t really need one.
A lot depends, of course, on Friday’s opener against Portugal. If Cristiano Ronaldo and co can sow the seeds of doubt and spark internal dissent, the whole thing could unravel very quickly.
But let’s hypothesise that Spain’s players galvanise themselves to overcome Portugal: the rest of the group stage – Iran and Morocco – shouldn’t present too many problems, and Spain would then be through to the last 16, top of the group, and Lopetegui would already be a distant memory.
Football is fickle, change happens all the time and players have to adapt quickly. A strong start against Portugal is just the medicine La Roja need, and if they get it they will swiftly move on, putting their former coach far out of their minds.
Spain might be battered and bruised, but they are not yet broken.
Host nation Russia take on Saudi Arabia in the World Cup 2018 opener at the Luzhniki Stadium.
With a global audience tuning in, it’s a chance for the two sets of players to leave an impression.
Here’s a look at some of the key players who could make the difference in the ecounter.
Aleksandr Golovin is one of the few bright sparks in Russia’s side. He won the Under-17 European Championship in 2013 and has been regarded as the country’s most promising talent since.
His outstanding form for CSKA Moscow this season in which he scored five Russian Premier League goals has seen him break into the national set-up’s starting XI. Golovin has excellent technique, dribbling ability and a dangerous shot from range while his quick and neat passing causes problems in the final third.
FAHAD AL MUWALLAD
At just 23, Muwallad has quickly grown into a football icon in Saudi Arabia and player upon which much of their World Cup dreams rest.
A tricky winger by trade, his blistering pace and eye for goal have seen him take pride of place at the tip of the Green Falcons’ attack. Mohammad Al Sahlawi’s dip in form has seen Muwallad take over as the lone striker, complementing his side’s counter-attacking style.
YASSER AL SHAHRANI
The Al-Hilal defender offers plenty in defence as well as attack. He is a formidable full-back but is renowned for his excellent dribbling ability and desire to get forward.
Al Shahrani is crucial to Saudi’s counter-attacking play as he sets the pacey Salem Al Dawsari off down the left flank with long balls forward. He is also versatile though and can play on either side of the defence.
The World Cup 2018 is upon us and kicks off with hosts Russia taking on Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium.
How both sides approach the tournament’s curtain raiser will be intriguing as it could make or break their chances of advancing from Group A.
Here are a few talking points ahead of the encounter.
About time to end winless streak
Russia haven’t won a single game in eight months and what better time for the host nation to finally bring an end to that unwanted run than in the opening match of the World Cup?
A winless streak of seven matches beats both Russian and Soviet records and isn’t altogether surprising considering they’re the lowest ranked team among the 32 at the tournament, slumping to 70th in the world according to the latest FIFA standings.
A disruptive build-up to the World Cup with head coach Stanislav Cherchesov falling out with several key players hasn’t done them any good, and has made for a depleted squad short of quality.
However, with Saudi Arabia to play first, they’re presented with the best opportunity to finally get a victory under their belts. The Middle East outfit are ranked only three places above the hosts. There is also the small matter of home court advantage that Russia will have going for them.
If they can secure a win against the Eagles, they can harbour hopes of progressing to the round of 16.
Russian media though has not painted a picture of optimism, asking instead if things can possibly get any worse.
“We have to take all the criticism and turn it into something positive,” Cherchesov told reporters.
“The first game will be the most important one because it will leave its stamp on the entire campaign,” he added.
Meanwhile, a supposedly clairvoyant cat has predicted a win for Russia in the first match.
Achilles, a deaf white cat and the official animal soothsayer for the tournament chose a bowl of food bearing Russia’s flag rather than that of Saudi Arabia.
Irrelevant that may be but the hosts will take encouragement wherever they can find it.
Less than ideal Saudi preparation
When Fahad Al Muwallad fired home a sensational winner against Japan to secure an automatic World Cup spot in qualifying, the general feeling around the national team was one of optimism.
However, the unceremonious departure of Bert van Marwijk left the team in disarray while Edgardo Bauza’s brief stint in charge didn’t help matters.
Juan Antonio Pizzi has since steadied the ship but the decision to send several key players on loan to La Liga clubs in January has not proved to be fruitful.
Al Muwallad, Yahya Al Shehri and Salem Al Dawsari were all shipped to Spain but struggled to secure playing time while Al Nassr striker Mohammad Al Sahlawi’s poor form has been a concern as well.
With Al Hilal midfielder Nawaf Al Abed missing the tournament through injury, the issues for Saudi heading into the World Cup have piled up.
Saudis are no pushovers
Pizzi’s side are undoubtedly one of the tournament’s minnows but they’ve shown that they are no pushovers. Germany, the World Cup holders and one of the favourites this time around as well, can certainly attest to that.
Joachim Low’s well-drilled machine, that won every one of their qualifying games, could only sneak a 2-1 win past the Saudis, needing an own goal from Omar Hawsawi to help them along as well.
Germany fielded a full-strength side but had their back-line exposed on more than one occasion by Saudi’s counter-attacks.
Their darting runs forward proved difficult to track and they managed to registered four out of 12 shots on target. They are lacking in quality but are well equipped to punish complacency.