Portugal will feel that there is no better time to play Spain.
With Cristiano Ronaldo in sublime form this year, the Portuguese will back themselves to beat the Spaniards.
Watch Ronaldo and the rest of the team in training below.
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.