It is always exciting when one of the first few matches at a major tournament feature a clash between soccer powerhouses. And that’s exactly what we have in store for us to round out a three-game slate of Friday action at Russia 2018. This showdown features what should be an intense affair between Iberian rivals, Spain and Portugal.
Portugal are the reigning 2016 European champions and return many players from that championship team. There have been some questioning their depth and talent in the lead-up to the World Cup however, with many experts feeling like they’re too overly reliant on the talented Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese soccer legend is now getting up there in age though, and you wonder if this could just be his last chance at a World Cup with this special generation of Portuguese football.
It will be an incredibly tough way to begin the tournament for Portugal, as Spain enter as one of the strongest squads at Russia 2018. They have an excellent blend of veteran experience with youthful exuberance and creativity. That said, they aren’t without turmoil as they prepare to take on their dangerous rivals to the west. Just under thirty-six hours ago, the Spanish federation sacked manager Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament. It was revealed that the coach had accepted that the Spaniard was named Real Madrid’s new manager, and the Spanish football federation deemed this to be unacceptable. He has been shockingly relieved of duties, and in his place will be interim coach Fernando Hierro. WIth a day to prepare, it will be interesting to see what type of state La Roja will be in when they do battle with Portugal.
Portugal vs. Spain Betting Odds:
- Portugal (+295)
- Spain (+105)
- Draw (+225)
- Over 2.5 (+120) Under 2.5 (-140)
Portugal vs. Spain Pick:
If you read my Group B preview for the World Cup, you’d know I am very down on the Portuguese heading into Russia. Their offense isn’t diverse enough and too much is still drawn through Ronaldo. They continually force older players in key roles, and while they might squeak through – playing Spain in the opener is a very tough draw.
The Spanish are loaded with talent, and a change in tactics over the past few years has definitely been welcome. They still possess the ball as often as they can, but La Roja now has a real finishing threat to their side. It’s unclear what their new manager Hierro will do on Friday, but my guess is he’s just going to stick with the status quo. It is also his first managerial appointment, and not tinkering too much with the talented group he has inherited is likely a good call. Spain will employ their traditional 4-3-3 and should have the full complement of all their star talents. They remain consistently solid at the back with Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, and look for the veteran Andres Iniesta to be able to play a key delivery role in providing service up front to talented finishers like David Silva, Diego Costa, and Isco. It’s a loaded starting lineup and one that creates problems all over the pitch for any opposition.
It will be up to Portugal to likely withstand a Spanish onslaught – something their ageing backline is likely not up to do. Pepe and Bruno Alves are clearly past their prime, but Fernando Santos has been reluctant to break up that centre-back partnership. Against Spain’s pace and skill, I see that duo making some critical errors in this game. And while Portugal too have some creativity underneath Ronaldo, the lack of depth throughout the pitch will be noticeable. Bernardo Silva and Ricardo Quaresma may prove to be tricky on the wings, but the Spanish fullbacks of Dani Carvajal and Jordi Alba are as solid as they come and should be able to handle Portugal out wide. As a result, I just can’t envision Portugal getting too many quality chances outside of Ronaldo’s usual brilliance.
While there has been some uncertainty in recent days within the Spanish camp, they’re still the superior side and have enough veteran leadership to overcome the distractions. Portugal’s gritty style will frustrate the more talented Spaniards at times, but in the end look for the skill and commanding possession numbers to win out. Spain’s speed up front could be a problem for Spain’s over-34 central defenders, and don’t be surprised to see the rapid Iago Aspas come on as a substitute to add yet another layer to Spain’s lethal attack.