Iran v Spain
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KAZAN • Spanish playmaker Isco has said that today's match against Iran will determine their World Cup destiny, as they seek to register their first win in Russia following a gripping 3-3 draw against Portugal.
Champions in 2010 and among the favourites this year, Spain's World Cup ambitions were kept in check, almost single-handedly, by a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick.
Last Friday's Group B draw came just two days after Spain's campaign was thrown into disarray by the shock sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui, following an untimely announcement by Real Madrid that he would join the 13-time European champions after the tournament.
Fernando Hierro, Spain's sporting director, is now at the helm but, barely a week into the tournament, La Roja have endured more drama than they would have wanted.
"It's a crucial match that will determine our World Cup destiny," said Isco. "We want to score from the opening minute, even though that won't be easy.
"We will stick to the style that defines us as a team, but we have to pass the ball around a lot more and maintain possession. If we play quickly across the pitch, the chances will come."
On paper, Spain should be able to deal comfortably with Iran, but Germany's loss to Mexico in the first match of their title defence on Sunday was a warning to all the game's heavyweights.
"What happened to Germany could happen to anyone," Hierro told reporters on Monday.
"The 32 teams here are very good and the first game is always tough. Anxiety plays a big role. We got a point against the European champions and now we've got Iran."
If there were causes of anxiety for Hierro, they might be in the form of goalkeeper David de Gea, who made an uncharacteristic blunder to allow Ronaldo to score the second of his three goals in Sochi. But Hierro has said that he will stick by his No. 1.
He said: "All players need confidence and I'm going to give that to them. De Gea has taken everything naturally, we have to get used to debate because it's part of the job. We need to be fair with him."
Former Spanish No. 1 Iker Casillas, who was not picked for this tournament, sympathised with de Gea.
"Only those of us who put on the gloves and go out on the field know how difficult it is," the Porto goalkeeper said. "It was an error and these things can happen."
Isco added: "De Gea is fine. Nobody likes making mistakes. He is still one of the best goalkeepers in the world."
Hierro's main concern, will then be whether Spain are able to break down an obdurate Iranian defence that conceded only five times in 18 qualifiers and get the goals they need to give them the best chance of topping Group B.
Iran kicked off their campaign with a 1-0 win against Morocco. But coach Carlos Queiroz, a former manager at Spanish giants Real Madrid, concedes that his men now face one of the biggest challenges in their World Cup history, even though he maintains they can "make the impossible possible".
Yet, keeping the Spanish armada at bay to claim the point that would boost hopes of qualifying for the last 16 looks a tall order.
Iran have never beaten a European side at a World Cup. To make matters worse, they suffered a blow yesterday when versatile defender Rouzbeh Cheshmi was ruled out of the rest of the tournament with a muscle injury in training and is likely to be sidelined for four weeks.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS