Euro­pean cham­pion Por­tu­gal over­looked ahead of Spain match

The Daily Observer - - SPORTS - TIM BOOTH

SOCHI, Rus­sia — They’re the reign­ing cham­pi­ons of Europe with ar­guably the best player in the world.

And yet there seems to be lit­tle talk about Por­tu­gal and Cris­tiano Ron­aldo head­ing into Fri­day’s much an­tic­i­pated World Cup match against neigh­bour­ing Spain in Group B.

In a way it’s un­der­stood. Spain dom­i­nated the head­lines this week with the chaos sur­round­ing its coach­ing sit­u­a­tion, to the point a large num­ber of ques­tions on Thurs­day at Por­tu­gal’s news con­fer­ence were based around their op­po­nent’s de­ci­sion to re­place coach Julen Lopetegui with Fer­nando Hierro just days be­fore the game. Se­condary was the fact this is the first match be­tween the Iberian neigh­bours since 2012.

“We’re fo­cused, we’re united and I don’t think we’re con­cerned with any­thing else,” Por­tu­gal mid­fielder Joao Moutinho said. “We have to fo­cus on the ac­tion of the team and what we can do to at­tain our goal in this World Cup. We’re not re­ally look­ing at what is hap­pen­ing with other teams.”

Per­haps a bit more re­spect should be paid to Por­tu­gal based on its last ma­jor tournament. The team won the 2016 Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship thanks to a mag­i­cal run through the knock­out stage led by Ron­aldo.

Spain,Ger­many,Brazi­landFrance are all talked about as po­ten­tial win­ners of this tournament. Rarely is Por­tu­gal men­tioned, yet the play­ers seem to un­der­stand their place in the hi­er­ar­chy of con­tenders.

“The favourites are the ones you have just listed,” Moutinho said. “Por­tu­gal is, I think, among the can­di­dates to be able to take this cup home. It’s nor­mal to have other favourites with all they’ve ob­tained, all they’ve achieved. Of course you have favourites. We are Euro­pean cham­pi­ons, but that doesn’t give us the right to be favourites.”

Any team that has the tal­ent of Ron­aldo has to be con­sid­ered a threat, even though the dis­cus­sion about what the Real Madrid for­ward could do on this stage has been side­tracked with talk of what awaits in his club ca­reer. Af­ter win­ning his third straight Cham­pi­ons League ti­tle, Ron­aldo hinted that per­haps his time at Real Madrid was at an end.

“He’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary cap­tain. He’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary player,” Por­tu­gal coach Fer­nando San­tos said. “He’s very pos­i­tive and a de­ci­sive in­flu­ence as the cap­tain of the team, whether it be on the pitch or off the pitch or in prac­tice. He’s an im­por­tant fig­ure.”

Por­tu­gal needs Ron­aldo on Fri­day to over­come its nag­ging problem of get­ting off to good starts in ma­jor tour­na­ments. It has been 10 years since Por­tu­gal won its opener at either the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship or World Cup — the team beat Turkey 2-0 to be­gin Euro 2008. At the past two World Cups, Por­tu­gal played to a 0-0 draw with Ivory Coast in 2010 and four years ago was routed 4-0 by Ger­many on its way to be­ing ousted from the tournament in the group stage.

Even two years ago on its way to the Euro­pean ti­tle, Por­tu­gal started with a 1-1 draw against Ice­land and barely ad­vanced to the knock­out round.

Fri­day’s game will be only the sec­ond World Cup match be­tween the neigh­bours. The pre­vi­ous was in 2010 when Spain elim­i­nated Por­tu­gal 1-0 in the round of 16.


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