Spain will kick off their 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign in Russia with a Group B contest against Portugal in the Iberian derby on Friday.

The wait is almost over, as the biggest event of world football, the FIFA World Cup, will kick off in less than a day in Russia. With 32 teams going head to head to be crowned the world champions, the fans will be in for a fun ride over the next month or so.

The first mouth-watering contest headed our way in the tournament will be on Friday, when one of the favourites, Spain, take on European champions Portugal at the Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi.

Spain were largely regarded as one of the top contenders heading into the competition. But their preparation coming into the game will have been thrown into disarray, after they shockingly sacked manager Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament. The Spaniard had been named as the new Real Madrid manager a day prior to his axing and it was announced that he would assume duties with Los Blancos post the FIFA World Cup.

However, the Spanish FA deemed his move disrespectful and relieved him of his duties, and have appointed the national team director and former Real Madrid captain Fernando Hierro as his successor. With just over a day available for Hierro to get things in order, the odds will be stacked against him and La Roja to deliver in Russia.

Portugal, on the other hand, might not be blessed with the same level of talent as Friday’s opponents, but come into the game as a settled unit under the management of Fernando Santos. Under him, the Seleccao lifted the UEFA Euro 2016 in France and finished third in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia and have been in solid form in the recent friendlies as well.

Both teams crashed out as early as the group stages in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil and will be intent on avoiding another similar situation this time out. With Morocco and Iran the other two teams in Group B, both Spain and Portugal are the favourites to go through to the next round and Friday’s contest will have a huge bearing on who ends up as the group winner.

Team News & Tactics

Portugal

Fernando Santos’ side has a settled look about it, going into the mega event in Russia. Despite the absence of several key players from their successful Euro campaign a couple of years ago, like Andre Gomes, Renato Sanches, Nani etc., the squad has a good balance to it and there is a good blend of experience and youth for Portugal that should hold them in good stead in the FIFA World Cup.

The manager has preferred to use the classic 4-4-2 setup in recent years and has paired up a mobile forward alongside Cristiano Ronaldo at the top to extract the best out of the maverick. And he is likely to go into the tournament with a similar setup, albeit with a small tweak, setting his team out in a 4-4-1-1 formation.

The 30-year old Rui Patricio has been around the national team for years now and will be pursued with between the sticks for the Seleccao. Southampton star Cedric Soares is expected to take up the right-back slot, with Raphael Guerreiro occupying the opposite side. Both the full-backs will be instructed to keep a check on their attacking instincts in order to not leave an ageing centre-back partnership of Pepe and Bruno Alves exposed.

Inter Milan midfielder Joao Mario will take up one of the central midfield slots and look to provide a box-to-box presence while he is most likely to be partnered up with the more defensive-minded William Carvalho, who will sit in and screen the backline.

Manchester City star Bernardo Silva is almost a guaranteed starter out on the right-wing and will hope to cause plenty of problems to the Spain defence with his pace, guile and creativity, cutting in from the flank. On the opposite wing, the immensely talented Ricardo Quaresma is the favourite to get the nod.

Ronaldo will spearhead the attack and will be aided by Paris Saint-Germain’s Goncalo Guedes, who will be given a free role operating behind the main man.

Probable Starting XI (4-4-1-1)Patricio; Cedric, Pepe, Alves, Guerreiro; B Silva, Carvalho, Mario, Quaresma; Guedes; Ronaldo;

Spain

This will be Hierro’s first ever managerial job and while he has served as an assistant to Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid before, the pressure of expectations on him will be huge. It is unlikely that he will look to tinker around with the fluid 4-3-3 setup that Spain used to deploy under his predecessor, especially given that he has so little time to impose his own ideas and principles.

David De Gea is widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the game currently and will be the undisputed No.1 for the Spaniards in Russia.

In defence, there is some amount of concern over the fitness of Dani Carvajal and Gerard Pique, but both are expected to be available for selection on Friday and should start as part of the back four, along with Sergio Ramos and left-back Jordi Alba. The two full-backs will have the license to romp forward at every possible occasion, but will need to be careful going up against the tricky Quaresma and Bernando Silva.

Sergio Busquets will anchor the midfield and act as the link between the two halves of the pitch for La Roja. Andres Iniesta and Thiago Alcantara set to occupy the other two spots in the centre of the park and provide the impetus going forward.

David Silva and Isco are likely to start in the attacking midfield slots on the left and the right channels respectively although there is going to be a lot of fluidity and switching of positions between all the midfielders. Upfront, mercurial striker Diego Costa is likely to get the nod ahead of Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas and Valencia’s Rodrigo.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): De Gea, Carvajal, Pique, Ramos, Alba; Thiago, Busquets, Iniesta; Isco, David Silva; Costa;

Key Stats

  • Portugal have clashed against Spain on a total of 36 occasions but have emerged victorious on just six times, while La Roja have won 18 of these encounters.
  • Spain eliminated Portugal 1-0 in the round of 16 at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa on their way to winning that tournament.
  • The last competitive match between the neighbouring nations came in the semi-final of the UEFA Euro 2012 in which Spain eliminated Portugal 4-2 in a penalty shootout and went on to lift the trophy once again.
  • Post their exit from the UEFA Euro 2016, Spain have not lost a single game till date. Under the management of Lopetegui La Roja had won 14 fixtures and drawn six.

Player to watch

Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

Carrying the weight of the entire nation (Photo courtesy: Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Umages)

Carrying the weight of the entire nation (Photo courtesy: Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Umages)

As is the case each time the Portuguese maverick takes the field, all eyes will once again be on him on Friday night in Sochi. Coming on the back of another successful season with Real Madrid, the Portugal national team captain will be hoping to carry the momentum into the World Cup. The 33-year old’s desire and hunger to succeed is something that will drive the Seleccao in Russia, as he looks to get his hands on the only trophy missing from his cabinet.

Prediction

Portugal 1-1 Spain

Spain would have been the favourites to win the match but the recent upheaval of the managerial situation leaves them in a difficult position. New manager Hierro might look to go all out for a win in order to make a strong impression on his debut, which might end up playing into Portugal’s hands.

However, their ageing defence could prove to be an Achilles’ heel and this Spain side has the quality to punish them at the slightest window of opportunity. As a result, we at the Hard Tackle, predict a 1-1 draw in the most high-profile Group B encounter.