Rival nations going head-to-head in the opening game of the World Cup – under any circumstances, this game would be massive. But given recent events, the status of this clash between Portugal and Spain on Friday night has been elevated further.
Still recovering from the fall from grace that followed their European championship win in 2012, Spain’s worst-case scenario manifested itself this week when the RFEF felt compelled to remove Coach Julen Lopetegui from his post.
Read RealSport’s preview for Portugal vs Spain HERE.
The Basque technician had agreed to a takeover at Real Madrid after the tournament but neglected to discuss the matter with his current employers, sparking a furious reaction from Federation boss Luis Rubiales.
Having only taken up the role of President in May, Rubiales wasted no time in imposing his authority, defying the pleas of the players to spare the man who had carried them this far.
With Lopetegui discharged, Sporting Director Fernando Hierro was parachuted into the role at short notice and will now try to guide Spain through the tournament. His first task will be to take on fellow Iberians, Portugal.
1 First big game of the tournament
Every game is big for the nations involved, but this is the first genuine heavyweight clash of the tournament.
It will be a nervous night for those watching on the peninsula as the two sides jostle for supremacy in Group B. Meanwhile, neutrals will hope for a classic.
The teams last met at a competitive level in Euro 2012 when Spain edged past their rivals on penalties. The Spaniards also prevailed when the two met at the 2010 World Cup, a single goal from David Villa separating the teams.
Portugal’s last competitive win against their neighbours came at the European Championships in 2004 when Nuno Gomes bagged the only goal in Lisbon.
Of their 36 meetings overall, Spain have won 18, Portugal have won six and 12 were drawn.
2 How will Spain react after a week of turmoil?
Having qualified for the World Cup under the guidance of popular boss Julen Lopetegui, his departure would have rocked the Spanish team to the core.
Many of the players have worked with the 51-year-old since youth level and will have little time to process his departure. This game will provide a real test of the mentality within the group.
Fernando Hierro cuts a calm and composing figure and will be the key to keeping all minds on the job at hand. The former Real Madrid man earned 89 caps for his country and was involved in four World Cup finals and one European Championship.
As a three-time Champions League and five-time La Liga winner, he should have no problem commanding the respect of the group.
Having already been involved as Sporting Director, he must try to maintain continuity following the 20-game unbeaten tenure of his predecessor.
3 How will Portugal strike their wounded opponent?
While Spain will try to minimise the impact of their coach’s departure, Portugal must see this as an opportunity to strike.
The media are sure to focus on this aspect too and the more the issue gets highlighted, the more the Spaniards could be affected.
Portugal need to impose themselves early in this game and rattle their rivals. If they can dominate the opening exchanges, it could set a precedent for the rest of the match. And if they can earn a win, their passage to the knockout stage will be virtually assured.
Wednesday’s events may have prompted Fernando Santos to change his approach to this encounter and that could be great news for the neutrals.
4 Diego Costa or Iago Aspas?
Julen Lopetegui put his faith in the Atletico Madrid man, but some feel Celta Vigo man Iago Aspas is a better fit in this team and has earned the right to a starting place following another prolific season at club level.
Aspas scored twice in three appearances from the bench during qualifying, but has started just two matches for Spain, both friendlies.
He has scored five goals from ten appearances, eight of which were as substitute.
In contrast, Diego Costa has just seven goals from 22 appearances of which he started 17. However, he hit international form at the right time netting five in five during World Cup qualifying.
5 Sergio Ramos to take the initiative
After his pleas to save Lopetegui’s job fell on deaf ears this week, Sergio Ramos will be fired up ahead of this game. He arrives here on the back of a Champions League win in which he was influential throughout and he will seek to impose himself again here.
Never one to shy away from responsibility, Ramos could be the key for Spain on Friday night as they look to negate the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo. Club comradery will be forgotten and the Portuguese attacker can expect rough treatment from the Spanish captain.
The defender has featured in three World Cups and three European Championships, winning the 2010 World Cup and the 2008 and 2012 Euros.
He has made over 150 appearances for Spain, a record only bettered by Iker Casillas.
What are you most looking forward to most in the clash between Portugal and Spain? Let us know in the comments below.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group B in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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