European heavyweights Spain and Portugal get their 2018 World Cup campaigns underway when they meet in Group B on Friday night.
Preparation for both sides has been less than ideal, with Spain facing an abrupt change of manager this week, while Portugal’s star forward Cristiano Ronaldo has reportedly accepted a suspended prison sentence just hours before the match and several Sporting players are involved in a messy battle to break their club contracts.
Despite the distractions, both nations will be fully focused on the task at hand in Sochi, with the upper hand in the group on offer to the victor. There are, of course, a number of talking points and questions to be posed before the teams take to the pitch.
How will Julen Lopetegui’s sacking affect Spain mentally?
The Spanish squad will be affected by the events of the past few days, undoubtedly. They wouldn’t be human if they were able to just carry on as normal given the events of this week, with Fernando Hierro now in the managerial dugout instead of Julen Lopetegui. The question is, to what extent will they allow Lopetegui’s dismissal to affect them?
Reports suggested that the players wanted Lopetegui wanted to stay, given the fact that he was the manager that had led them to Russia. However, he’s gone now so it’s up to Hierro, Sergio Ramos and co. to shut out as much as possible and carry on as normal. If they can do that, it shouldn’t affect them too much.
Will Fernando Hierro make changes to the style of play?
The new man in charge has been quite keen to stress that changes to the system will be minimal, insofar as it seems as though many of the ideas and systems that Lopetegui had in place will be maintained.
To that extent, it does sound as though Hierro has little or no interest in putting his own stamp on proceedings right now and is happy to be the firefighter in this situation; given his relative lack of managerial experience, it’s probably the best course of action.
That said, Hierro can’t allow the senior players like Sergio Ramos or Gerard Pique to start calling the shots either. He has to make it very clear that he’s in charge.
To what extent will Portugal rely on Cristiano Ronaldo for inspiration?
Portugal arguably deserve more respect than they have begin given in the buildup to this tournament – after all, they are the reigning European champions and had a strong qualification campaign. However, there is that niggling feeling that they are being carried by Ronaldo, a feeling that seems to grow with every passing year.
Portugal have decent players in that squad – the likes of Bernardo Silva, Goncalo Guedes, Gelson Martins and Joao Mario are all good options – so, in theory, there is no real need to have such a dependency on one player. If Bernardo Santos can convince the players not to use Ronaldo as a crutch, then it could be the making of this team.
Will both sides factor in the two remaining games?
This is, of course, just the first in three group games, so both teams should be treating it as such. The pressure will be lessened even more if Morocco v Iran ends in a draw, but neither Spain nor Portugal should be hitting the panic button even if they fail to win here.
Both will still be expected to progress from this group, so while it would be nice to get three points in Sochi to set the tone for the group, failure to do so can be rectified pretty quickly.