Football: Spain are there for the taking

Figo fancies Portugal's chances after Euro success; Deco critical of new-look La Roja

GROUP B

Portugal v Spain
Singtel TV Ch141 & StarHub Ch222, tomorrow, 2am

In Fernando Santos' own words, this is a match between "favourites" Spain and his "contenders" Portugal, even if La Roja had just controversially replaced manager Julen Lopetegui with Fernando Hierro on Wednesday.

Four games into the 2018 World Cup and we have the first mouth-watering clash of the group stage tomorrow morning (Singapore time).

Call it the Showdown in Sochi if you like. Reigning European champions Portugal face Spain, who overcame their own underachievers tag to win the World Cup in 2010, sandwiched between triumphs at Euro 2008 and 2012.

Morocco and Iran are no pushovers, but it would take a brave man to bet against the Iberian neighbours progressing from Group B. The winners tomorrow morning may well decide who top the group and theoretically face a weaker round of 16 opponent from Group A.

Portugal have come a long way since they were obliterated 9-0 by Spain in a 1934 World Cup qualifier.

Ahead of their 36th meeting, the Spaniards still hold a superior head-to-head record of 17 wins against six losses but the Portuguese are riding high. They are reigning European champions and ranked fourth in the world, six rungs higher than their arch-rivals.

 

The Navigators have made at least the semi-finals in five of nine major tournaments this century and the wily 63-year-old Santos is eyeing another deep run in Russia after instilling purpose and passion into a side that won 20 and lost just one of 24 competitive games since he took over in September 2014.

Ballon d'Or winner and Portugal legend Luis Figo felt that the team have forged an identity of their own, compared to his golden generation which won the 1989 and 1991 Under-20 World Cups, entertained from 1996 to 2006 but failed to win a major trophy at senior level.

The 45-year-old told The Straits Times: "Portugal have the same chance as Spain to win the game right now. Our generation allowed Portugal to grow a lot and be respected in football. We are really proud of that.

"I expect Portugal to be world champions, they have a mix of young and experienced players.

HUNGRY AGAIN

It has everything to be a great game. We are prepared for a tricky game, but we are confident that we are capable. I expect a great game, of extremely high difficulty. Portugal leaves for the World Cup with the same conviction that left for the last European Championship. We have great respect for the opponents, but with a great thirst for victory.

FERNANDO SANTOS, Portugal coach.

DREAMS AT STAKE

I would like for my team to play well, with ball possession, with quality and scoring two or three goals more than the rival... I told the players that we have a thrilling challenge ahead of us and we can't think of anything other than our dream.

FERNANDO HIERRO, Spain's stand-in coach.

"For us, it's very important to do a good job. We may possibly not be considered a favourite, but we know we can compete."

Five-time Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo is still the talismanic figure for Portugal but he has to improve on his World Cup tally.

While his team won every game he scored in at the 2006, 2010 and 2014 editions, they were solitary strikes in just three games against weaker sides.

Speed may be an issue for Portugal as the defensive trio of Pepe, Bruno Alves and Jose Fonte and winger Ricardo Quaresma are all in their mid-30s, but Santos can also count on exciting talents such as Bernardo Silva, Andre Silva and Goncalo Guedes, all 23 or younger.

Former Portugal playmaker Deco told ST: "Santos was my first coach at Porto and helped me a lot in my career. He is a better coach now than before, he knows the team very well, and how to get the best out of them.

"We always produce good individual players like Ronaldo and now Bernardo, but the best thing now is how they defend and play as a team.

"They won Euro 2016 when people were looking at Germany and France, so they are more experienced and confident now."

But Ronaldo and Co. face a Spain side who have rediscovered their swagger after blips at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016.

La Roja were unbeaten in 20 games under Lopetegui, and now Hierro has inherited a squad that include arguably the world's best goalkeeper in David de Gea, and creative talents like Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Isco.

They also have six players from Champions League winners Real Madrid, and six more who played for runaway champions in LaLiga, the Bundesliga and the English Premier League last season.

Deco took a swipe at Spain by saying that they will find it hard to reach the heights of their predecessors: "Spain are a strong team again, but that old generation from 2008 to 2012 were almost impossible to beat. Iniesta is not the same, and you cannot replace the brains of Xavi and the striking instincts of David Villa."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2018, with the headline 'Spain are there for the taking'. Print Edition | Subscribe