Spain face European champions Portugal in their opening Group B match on Friday evening (9PM EAT) hoping to shrug off the drama of their managerial change on the eve of the tournament.
Julen Lopetegui was sacked just two days before Spain’s opening fixture after accepting the Real Madrid job, plunging the 2010 world champions’ preparations into disarray.
Sporting director Fernando Hierro has been placed in charge and says Spain should not dwell on the events of recent days and focus on the task in hand.
“The players are excited, they want this challenge. It’s a challenge for everyone. We have no time to dwell,” he said.
“I know they’re going to give 100 per cent. In a World Cup nobody gives anything away. We all know what this means and our responsibilities.”
However, Spain’s managerial change will not affect their performance in their opening ‘Iberian derby’ match, Portugal’s coach Fernando Santos believes.
“It is Spain and Portugal,” he said. “Spain has played like that for 10 years, I don’t think there are going to be any surprises. What is important is the team that plays, and the strategy and no more than that.”
“Spain are fantastic opponents. They are highly qualified with a kind of game that has been consolidated over the years and (it) won’t change that radically.”
Spain were underwhelming in their two warm-up matches, managing a sluggish 1-1 draw against Switzerland before requiring an 84th-minute winner from Iago Aspas to beat Tunisia.
Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo showed he is in fine form as he returned to the Portuguese side to inspire his team to a simple victory over Algeria in their final warm-up match.
Dani Carvajal has returned to training with Spain following a hamstring injury but remains a doubt for the World Cup opener, with Alvaro Odriozola expected to deputise at right-back should he miss out.
Portugal have reported no injury concerns ahead of the clash. Jose Fonte and Bruno Alves are in contention to partner Pepe in the centre of defence, while either Andre Silva or Goncalo Guedes will join Ronaldo in attack.
Portugal and Spain’s only previous World Cup encounter was in 2010, with Spain winning 1-0 in the round of 16 thanks to a David Villa goal.
Portugal and Spain’s four encounters at major tournaments (World Cup + Euro) have produced only four goals.
Portugal will attempt to become the fourth nation to win back-to-back European Championship and World Cup tournaments after West Germany (Euro 1972, World Cup 1974), France (World Cup 1998, Euro 2000) and Spain (Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, Euro 2012).
None of Spain’s last 14 games at the World Cup have ended in a draw (W10 L4). They’ve lost three of their last six group games (W3), after winning each of their previous seven.
Spain had the joint-best defensive record in the 2018 European World Cup qualifiers alongside England, conceding only three goals in 10 games. They were also one of four teams to remain unbeaten – along with Belgium, England and Germany – winning nine of their 10 games.
Cristiano Ronaldo was directly involved in more goals than any other player in the 2018 European World Cup qualifiers (18), scoring 15 goals and assisting a further three. However, he has never scored against Spain (340 minutes).
I have gone for Portugal to win this one actually. I watched Spain play Tunisia in a friendly on Friday night, and I thought they were poor and had run out of ideas. And Portugal are a better defensive team than Tunisia, you saw that when they won the Euros last time out. And then they have that X-factor in Cristiano Ronaldo, while they will be more of a threat when they break than Tunisia were. So I have gone for Portugal to win this game.
#ObserverSport Pundit Predicts: Portugal 2-1 Spain