Little room for error

Spain coach Julen Lopetegui during the 2018 Fifa World Cup Draw at State Kremlin Palace, Moscow, on Dec 1, 2017.
Spain coach Julen Lopetegui during the 2018 Fifa World Cup Draw at State Kremlin Palace, Moscow, on Dec 1, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

Euro winners Portugal, 2010 world champs Spain clash in their crunch Group B opener

MADRID • Spain coach Julen Lopetegui believes an enticing clash with European champions Portugal, led by World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo, to start their World Cup campaign leaves the 2010 champions with little room for error in Russia next year.

The Iberian neighbours will be favourites to progress from Group B after also being paired with Morocco and Iran in Friday's draw in Moscow, but they face each other first up in Sochi on June 15.

Real Madrid's Ronaldo is just one of Portugal's many players who ply their trade in Spain, but Lopetegui was keen to point to the qualities Portugal showed collectively in claiming their first major trophy at Euro 2016 just 18 months ago.

"Straight away it isn't the time to talk about individuals," Lopetegui told Spanish TV station Cuatro.

"Portugal have won an important title and, moreover, very recently. They are the champions of Europe, they have fantastic players and we are talking about the highest level."

Indeed, Portugal survived without an injured Ronaldo for the vast majority of the Euro 2016 final to shock hosts France - thanks to an extra-time goal from Eder.

But the Portuguese have failed to beat Spain in seven previous meetings at major tournaments.

"What matters to us is to play a great game when the time comes and to be capable of beating them," added Lopetegui. "The rest is history."

While in Spain there is fear Ronaldo could come back to bite the hand that has fed him during the past eight years in Madrid, in Portugal the clash was also met with pessimism with a rejuvenated La Roja the side every seeded side wanted to avoid.

"Ronaldo waits for us in Russia," ran the headline in Spanish daily Marca's digital edition, as their Portuguese counterparts A Bola lamented "Spain are the worst side that could have come out of pot two for the national team".

Portugal coach Fernando Santos also admitted that his side have a massive task on hand.

"It's a very deceptive and treacherous group. Portugal have to accept that we are one of the favourites but if you look in a bit more detail, you can see it's very difficult," he said. "Spain are naturally favourites, as I've always said."

Lopetegui and Santos will start sharpening their swords for their date in June, but one coach who is likely to bring just a dagger to his group matches is Joachim Low.

The Germany boss said that he saw no reason to fear the reigning champions' opponents after they were paired with Mexico, Sweden and South Korea.

"I am certainly not scared," he told ZDF television. We know the Mexicans from the Confederations Cup, the Swedes are a European team who we know as well, so only South Korea will be a slightly unknown quantity."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 03, 2017, with the headline 'Little room for error'. Print Edition | Subscribe