Portugal-Spain: The moment of truth
As they say in bullfighting: when the bull emerges, everyone sits down. The chit-chat and the how-do-you-dos in the stands come to an end, and attentions turn to the ring. Yesterday, Russia and Saudi Arabia's bull was released into the fray; today, it's our turn. From the moment that first whistle goes, Julen Lopetegui will be no more than a memory. As you know, lining up opposite Spain are Portugal; a tough nut to crack, whoever's in our dugout. With a game plan similar to Diego Simeone's - take few risks, wait for the other team to make a mistake, then pounce - they arrive in Russia as European champions, after all, and have the small matter of Cristiano Ronaldo and his goal-a-game habit (when it's not more than that) up front. Playing against him is almost like taking to the field already 1-0 down.
Lest we forget: Spain have got a right good side
But we've got a good side. I don't expect much variation from what Lopetegui, who has left behind a team in excellent nick, would have done. Barring the odd question mark (Koke or Thiago depending on who we're playing, which centre-forward to go with...), the XI more or less picks itself - and works well. The opening game of a World Cup campaign is always a fixture with a bit of difference, mind you. The game is marked in red from the moment the draw is made, the players will have been going over it in their heads for several weeks, and more often than not need a wee while to shake off the pre-match nerves. But that applies to Fernando Santos' men, too. The World Cup then gets into its routine of a match every few days, but the first is always daunting. Not least after the build-up we've had.
I'm hopeful recent events will bring squad closer together
But as a born optimist, I'm actually hopeful the events of the last few days might serve to bring the group closer together. It's not uncommon for squads to react that way; it's something we've seen often. Meanwhile, as Spain got ready for the off in Sochi, Lopetegui was being unveiled at the Bernabéu yesterday. He's an excellent coach, but I can't shake the thought that he arrives at Real Madrid as something like fifth choice. If any of Mauricio Pochettino, Joachim Löw, Massimiliano Allegri or Jürgen Klopp had said yes to Florentino Pérez, we would have been spared this whole episode, which has left Real in the role of saboteur of the Spanish national team. His presentation became a gratuitous, insidious act of destabilisation on the very eve of La Roja's first game of the tournament.
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