Portugal take on Spain with the silverware but not the swagger
Fernando Santos has key decisions to make as his side face their Iberian rivals in Sochi
Portugal’s forward Cristiano Ronaldo takes part in a training session at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi . Photograph: Getty Images
Group B: Portugal v Spain, Friday June 15th, Sochi (7.0pm)
They might finally be the ones with a title to laud over their rivals, but Portugal could be in better shape as they head into Friday evening’s World Cup Group B clash with Spain. Key players are struggling for form, a leading club back at home is in something approaching meltdown and Fernando Santos reckons they will be battling the hand of history as well as Spain here in Sochi. Just as well their opponents also have the odd issue to contend with.
Predictably, the Portuguese manager declined to be drawn on the opposition’s managerial problems at Thursday’s press conference, insisting “Spain have played the same way for 10 years,” and so, he would have us believe, the change of coach amounts to some sort of administrative matter.
His newly installed opposite number Fernando Hierro can hardly argue just now, but it is hard to imagine that as news of Julen Lopetegui’s sacking broke on Wednesday the words of Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales - “this is bad, really bad,” - were not pretty well received by the Portuguese.
It is surprisingly easy to forget that they are the ones who arrive here as continental champions. Spain have by far the greater spread of major stars and even Santos, persistently criticised back at home for the team’s style of play, found himself talking in advance of the game about the way in which his side would react to Spain’s many strengths. “No team is perfect,” he concluded, on what was supposed to be an encouraging note.
As he weighs up his starting 11, the 63-year-old must make big decisions in key areas. At the back his stars are out of sorts and bordering on over the hill, and up front young André Silva’s club form has made the question of whether he should continue to partner Ronaldo in attack unavoidable.
Jose Fonte looks likely to partner Pepe in the heart of the team’s normally formidable defence because Bruno Alves is now 36 and arrives with an even weaker case for inclusion. Recent encounters between the two sides have been tight and, as they try to win their opening game at a major championship for the first time in five attempts, it is in Portugal’s interests to ensure that this game is no different.
Whether the back four is up to the task will provide an important early indication of what sort of impact Portugal are capable of making at this tournament in general. Their cause is not helped by the fact that four of the squad - two of them, Rui Patricio and William Carvalho, likely starters - have just announced their intention to exit their Lisbon club, Sporting, after what has been a turbulent season.
Midfielder Joao Mario, who left the club for Inter two years ago after impressing at Euro 2016 but ended the season at West Ham after losing his way with the Italian club, has warned them against following him to Serie A, advice that Silva would doubtless endorse.
The 22 year-old looked a godsend after breaking through sensationally at Porto before quickly moving to Milan for €38 million plus add-ons last summer. The performance related side to the deal has started to look a little academic after a poor season, and there is already talk of him being moved on by the Italians.
Despite scoring just twice in Serie A and failing to build on a stronger showing in the early stages of the Europa League, Silva might well feel that the nine goals he scored for his country in qualifying should count for something, but Goncalo Guedes did well in the World Cup warm-up games.
His own move from Sporting to PSG has not exactly worked out as planned but a loan move to Valencia has gone well, and amid talk that he might actually replace his fellow countryman in Milan next season, he arrives here with more confidence, one suspects, than his rival for the second striker’s starting spot.
At least, Santos knows, there is no question about the first. Ronaldo, it seems, in flying form; which might be just as well.