A day after their World Cup campaign was plunged into turmoil, Spain’s captain, Sergio Ramos, and new head coach, Fernando Hierro, put forth an united front ahead of Friday’s tournament opener against Portugal.
La Roja were considered one of the favourites to lift the trophy this summer after a two-year unbeaten run during the reign of Hierro’s predecessor, Julen Lopetegui. But Lopetegui was sacked on Wednesday, a day after Real Madrid announced that he would fill their managerial vacancy once the World Cup was over.
The whirlwind 48 hours were hardly ideal preparation for the 2010 champions, but Ramos is backing his new manager to guide the squad through the turbulence.
“There is nobody better than Fernando. He was a great player and has known us for a long time,” the defender said.
Ramos, who is also Madrid captain, sidestepped suggestions that Lopetegui’s appointment by his club could have opened up fissures between players in the national team due to the bitter rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona.
“There are no cracks,” he said. “We are all individuals and we all think differently, but the collective idea is the same – we are here to go for the World Cup.
“This is special, it is my first World Cup as captain. In football you learn above all during the bad times. What has happened has united us.”
Almost simultaneously, Lopetegui was being unveiled by Real Madrid, describing being sacked by Spain as “the saddest day of my life since the death of my mother.”
His successor promised that despite the change in management, there would not be sweeping changes to the national team setup.
“We are absolutely fine coming into this game,” Hierro said of Friday’s clash with Portugal, the Euro 2016 champions.
“We know quite clearly what we want. We respect the champions but we have full confidence in the boys and what they have done in these last two years.”
RONALDO’S LAST CHANCE?
Spain will come up against a familiar face in Ramos’ club-mate Cristiano Ronaldo, who at 33 is likely looking at his last chance to win the World Cup, and will want to add to his below-par tally of three total goals across three separate editions of the tournament.
“I prefer to have him on our side,” Ramos said of Ronaldo. “We know how important he is, he is a constant danger.”
The two Iberian nations are expected to progress from a group that contains Morocco and Iran, with Friday’s match likely to determine which one tops Group B.
Spain are still sweating over their right-back slot, with Real Madrid’s Dani Carvajal, who went off injured in the Champions League final last month, struggling to regain full fitness in time.
Portugal, who are looking for their first victory over Spain at a major tournament since Euro 2004, have no injury worries.
“This is a ‘Clasico'”, manager Fernando Santos said. “We are two countries who have a lot in common, not least the fact we share a border. We are neighbours, but also teams with great quality.”
“We don’t want to be arrogant, but we are full of hope.”
The 26-year-old was set to be the star of his home World Cup four years ago, only for his tournament to be cruelly cut short by an injury suffered in the quarter-final that scuppered his team’s chances – with Brazil suffering a stunning loss in their first game without him, the infamous 7-1 semi-final defeat to eventual champions Germany.
Four years on and Neymar is now thought of as the player most likely to challenge Ronaldo and Messi’s hegemony on the status of best player in the world, and Zanetti agrees.
“Neymar is very strong, has great quality and is very close to Messi and Ronaldo,” he told Mediaset.
“I believe that this World Cup can be his consecration.”
Brazil, who are one of the favourites to lift the trophy this summer, begin their campaign on Sunday against Switzerland, before playing Costa Rica and Serbia in their other Group E fixtures.
Aleksandr Golovin was highlighted as the big hope for hosts Russia, and on the first chance he got, he showed why.
The CSKA Moscow midfielder, who has been linked with a move to the Premier League, justified the hype with a performance that included two assists and a goal in Russia’s 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia.
Here’s a look at the Hero of the Day from the tournament’s opening match.
Golovin lived up to his billing as Russia’s star player. He was at the heart of all of Russia’s best attacking play, setting up a teammate for an easy header twice and capping off a stellar night with an inch-perfect free kick.
Russia have been viewed as heavy underdogs in their home tournament – they’re the lowest-ranked team at the tournament – but as long as Golovin can produce performances like this, they’ll always be in with a chance.
The 22-year-old’s movement was perfect, as he always popped up in the right place at the right time to receive the ball, set off an attack, or deliver a killer pass. Allied with his vision, that movement was deadly.
He got his delivery from crosses and set-pieces spot-on as well, setting up two goals and creating many more chances. Just to punctuate that point, when he got a good shooting chance from a dead-ball situation, he converted it beautifully.
There’s almost nothing to fault in Golovin’s performance on Thursday. A hesitancy to shoot, perhaps, as he only took one shot all game, and that came in the 93rd minute.
Given that this lone shot resulted in a goal, he’d be well within his rights to let loose more often. In a different game, his reluctance to shoot could cost Russia – Uruguay and Egypt are unlikely to be as accommodating opponents as Saudi Arabia were in the opener.
It’s not easy being a 22-year-old and having the weight of an entire country on your shoulders, with the whole world watching. Neymar was in a similar position four years ago when Brazil hosted the tournament, and Golovin’s burden as the brightest spark in an underwhelming team on home territory is somewhat similar.
But he passed his first test with flying colours, delivering a superlative performance to drive Russia to victory. Golovin rose to the occasion when it counted.
RATING – 10/10