Till around this time – last week, Spain were deemed to be favourites to win the World Cup. With a dizzying array of talent in midfield and defence, and led by coach Julen Lopetegui who had not lost a single game since taking charge in 2016, Spain looked prime candidates to navigate a difficult group consisting of Iran, Morocco and Iberian rivals Portugal.
The sacking of Lopetegui a day before the tournament commences for rescinding his Spain contract casts aspersions on the hopes of the team. Portugal on the other hand, enter the tournament as underdogs in spite of their remarkable 2016 Euro triumph.
Controversy notwithstanding, Spain still possess one of the most impressive squads in the World Cup. In David De Gea, Ramos, Pique, Carvajal and Alba, they have one of the finest back fours in world football, their midfield features the likes of Busquets, Thiago Alcantara, Isco, David Silva, Koke, and Andres Iniesta, who is playing in his last World Cup. Up front, Asensio, Diego Costa, Iago Aspas, Rodrigo Moreno and Lucas Vazquez form a versatile and flexible tactical option.
Lopetegui who had coached the likes of Koke, Alcantara, Isco and Moreno at the Under 21 level, created a more attacking lineup which plays a direct style during the qualifiers and that should stand them in good stead against defensive teams like Iran. The appointment of Spain and Real Madrid legend Hierro as caretaker manager might be a masterstroke as he recharges the team and ensures off field problems don’t impact performances on field.
Portugal might see the unceremonious sacking of Lopetegui as a welcome relief though they have some issues of their own to deal with. Still dependent on veterans such as Fonte, Bruno Alves and Pepe in central defence, it does them no favour that Cedric Soares - the first choice right back has suffered a massive dip in form lately. The only positive in their defensive set up has been the emergence of Mario Rui, the Napoli left back as a viable alternative. In midfield, Carvalho and Adrien Silva have endured below par seasons with a lot of the burden resting on midfield maestro Joao Moutinho.
A key conundrum for manager Fernando Santos will be to get the balance between attack and defensive in midfield especially against an exquisite midfield such as Spain’s. Contrary to the situation in defence and midfield, Portugal is replete with options in attack. Goncalo Guedes, the pacy left winger had a breakthrough season with Valencia, Bernardo Silva the diminutive wide playmaker has blossomed under Pep Guardiola in Manchester while Gelson Martins too has shone for Sporting Lisbon. Andre Silva is a good back up for the centre forward position while Quaresma has shown a late career revival for both club and country. Add captain and talisman Cristiano Ronaldo to the list, and you have one of the most threatening forward lines in the tournament. Santos will look to bank on this strength and managerial uncertainty on Spain’s behalf to return winners in this marquee clash.
Player to Watch Spain Sergio Ramos has been through many pressure situations in his storied career, be it the power struggle between Casillas and Mourinho, the prospect of losing to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League Final or the shocking upset to Netherlands in their 2014 World Cup opener. But the current controversy in the Spanish team trumps all of the above. Ramos as captain of Spain and Real Madrid finds himself in an extremely awkward situation since coach Lopetegui broke his contract with Spain to join Real Madrid. Ramos, who was in favour of Lopetegui staying as coach after his breach of contract has to pick himself up and display the defensive leadership and set piece ability expected from him. A virtuoso performance from him against an electric frontline and an ageing defence will be key for Spain to get their campaign back on track. Sergio Ramos- Portugal Guedes who plied his trade in Spain during the 2017-18 season, was one of the star performers for Valencia as they reached the 4th spot in La Liga. His ability to run at defenders and finish expertly in the box makes him a dangerous proposition for the opposing right back. With Carvajal returning from an injury suffered in the Champions League final, Guedes would back his chances to trouble the Spanish backline. His penetrative runs will also help Ronaldo, with their linkup play central to Portuguese attacking endeavours. Goncalo Guedes- Predicted lineups Spain: 1-4-3-3
De Gea- Carvajal, Ramos, Piqué, Alba- Koke, Busquets, Iniesta- Silva, Diego Costa, Isco
Rui Patrício- Soares, Pepe, Alves, Guerreiro- Moutinho, Carvalho, Adrien Silva- Bernardo Silva, Cristiano Ronaldo, Guedes
Head to Head
Aniket Mishra is a freelance writer who will cover the Fifa World Cup for CNBC-TV18.com