Houston Chronicle - - SOCCER -

Pre­dicted order of fin­ish: Spain, Por­tu­gal, Morocco, Iran.

Out­look: There is no greater di­vide be­tween the per­ceived top two and bot­tom two teams than here. Spain, Por­tu­gal … and who else? With all due re­spect to Morocco and Iran, the Ibe­rian ti­tans will en­ter the com­pe­ti­tion as heavy fa­vorites to reach the next round. The only lin­ger­ing ques­tion, it seems, is the order in which they’ll traverse.

But Spain is deal­ing with ma­jor chaos. Na­tional team coach Julen Lopetegui was fired Wed­nes­day after he ac­cepted a job Tues­day to coach Real Madrid next sea­son with­out let­ting fed­er­a­tion of­fi­cials know in ad­vance.

Spain roared through a soft qual­i­fy­ing group with nine vic­to­ries, a draw and a plus-33 scor­ing dif­fer­en­tial in 10 matches, the only blem­ish com­ing at Italy. Four play­ers scored five goals apiece. In March, the world took no­tice of Spain’s grow­ing ca­pac­ity this sum­mer by blast­ing Ar­gentina 6-1.

After clash­ing in La Liga, a dozen play­ers from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid will make up more than half the squad. An­dres Ini­esta, Ger­ard Pique, Ser­gio Ramos, David Silva, Ser­gio Bus­quets and Jordi Alba will at­tempt to raise one more ma­jor tro­phy be­fore time catches up to them. David de Gea (Manch­ester United) is among the sport’s best goal­keep­ers.

The Spa­niards are fa­mil­iar with Por­tu­gal’s best player, Cris­tiano Ron­aldo, who has pow­ered Real Madrid to four of the past five Cham­pi­ons League ti­tles. In the mid­dle of club supremacy, Ron­aldo two sum­mers ago also helped Por­tu­gal win its first Euro­pean cham­pi­onship — an in­ter­na­tional break­through that could carry over to the World Cup. For that to oc­cur, Ron­aldo will need help from Euro he­roes like Pepe, Rui Pa­tri­cio and Raphael Guer­reiro.

Pierre-Philippe Mar­cou / AFP/Getty Im­ages

Spain’s goal­keeper, David de Gea, is con­sid­ered among the world’s best.

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