All eyes on Spain ahead of match with Euro champ Por­tu­gal

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - 2018 WORLD CUP - TIM BOOTH

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, Brazil and France 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. Por­tu­gal needs Ron­aldo on Friday to over­come its nag­ging prob­lem of get­ting off to good starts in ma­jor tour­na­ments.

“The favourites are the ones you have just listed,” Moutinho said. “Por­tu­gal is, I think, among the can­di­dates to be able to take this [World Cup Tro­phy] 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.

“Well that ques­tion has been asked of­ten when we play other coun­tries. What’s his­tory is his­tory. The present is now and the present is to­mor­row,” San­tos said. “We have a team of high qual­ity. … We’d like to put an end to that story of not be­ing able to win that first game.”

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