Two legendary footballing nations. Cristiano Ronaldo versus Sergio Ramos. FIFA World ranked number four versus number ten. The last two European champions. Portugal and Spain will open up group play versus each other on Friday in one of the World Cup‘s most highly anticipated match-ups. Both teams are expected to make deep runs, but this match’s importance cannot be understated. The possible winner of Friday night’s game should top Group B. With all this being said, what should be expected from both teams?
Portugal v Spain: Cristiano Ronaldo v Sergio Ramos
Although Portugal’s only challenge in qualifying came through Switzerland, the team performed admirably in their ten matches. A Seleção das Quinas earned 27 points, winning nine matches and losing one. Perhaps even more impressive, their goal difference was an astounding +28. Switzerland kept Portugal humble by also earning 27 points, but only had a goal difference of +16.
Portugal’s main strength lies in their attack. Cristiano Ronaldo is arguably the deadliest finisher in world football and will look to make a mark in the World Cup after his injury in Portugal’s victorious Euro 2016 campaign. Furthermore, Ronaldo will be accompanied by a legitimate striker in André Silva. Although Silva struggled in his debut season at AC Milan, he still has a very impressive record of 12 goals in 23 matches with the national team.
In addition, Gonçalo Guedes and Gelson Martins have steadily improved and have the pace and trickery to keep fullbacks wary. Lastly, the experience of Ricardo Quaresma will prove to be vital in arguably the most important tournament in all of sports.
Portugal’s midfield does not stand out as exemplary, but it is very solid nonetheless. The team’s main weakness is their defence. Portugal has solid fullback play, but the centre of their defence may prove to be shaky.
Bruno Alves, José Fonte and Pepe have left their best years behind them. Although experienced, age has caught up to all of them and they will struggle to keep up with younger forwards. Rúben Dias broke out for Benfica this past season, but with only one international appearance to his name, his starting status remains questionable.
La Furia Roja’s qualifying campaign was even more impressive than that of Portugal. Spain earned 28 points in ten matches, winning nine and drawing one versus Italy. Their defence only conceded three goals in the ten matches, leading to a goal differential of +33. Although no other team from their qualifying group made the World Cup, Spain made it a point to prove that they are ready to overcome their 2014 World Cup disappointment
The Spanish are stacked from top to bottom. David de Gea has already emerged as one of the top Spanish goalkeepers of all time. Many would say he has surpassed Manuel Neuer as the best shot-stopper in the game. If anything were to happen to De Gea, Pepe Reina is an outstanding veteran capable of controlling his defence.
The four in the back represent Barcelona’s and Real Madrid’s stout defences and have years of experience with each other. It says a lot that César Azpilicueta and Nacho Monreal will be left on Spain’s bench. Any forward, including Cristiano Ronaldo, will fear the daunting task of overcoming Spain’s wall of a defence.
Spain’s midfield can dictate any game, and might even be stronger than their defence. Sergio Busquets will certainly start in front of the back line and rightfully so. Busquets has been one of the top defensive midfielders in the game for years now and has 103 appearances for Spain to show for that.
Furthermore, Andrés Iniesta will look to amaze (per usual) in what could be his final international appearances. Not only has Iniesta been the most talented midfielder of the last generation, but one of the top in history. Although the third midfield role could be up for grabs, superstars Koke, Isco, David Silva, Saúl and Thiago will be competing for this. Even more impressively, names like Marco Asensio and Lucas Vázquez will struggle for minutes on this side.
Although David Villa no longer leads the front line, Spain will be just fine. Diego Costa is one of the most powerful strikers in football, while Iago Aspas and Rodrigo both come into the World Cup in fine form. There will be goals aplenty with this side.
Spain’s depth leaves them with virtually no weaknesses. The mix of talent, experience and youth on this Spanish side is the exact reason why they’re a top favourite to win it all.
However, one distraction could be the recent departure of Julen Lopetegui. Less than 24 hours after accepting the manager’s role at Real Madrid, the Spanish FA decided to part ways with the coach. It is yet to be seen just how this will affect Spain.
The Last Word
Although Portugal comes into this match with a higher FIFA ranking, Spain remains the favourite. Spain’s current win probability is 50 per cent while Portugal’s is 21%. The World Cup, however, is unpredictable. Both teams were firing on all cylinders during qualifying and friendlies, and fireworks will be expected out of this match. No doubt Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos will deliver the goods.
Fisht Stadium in Sochi will play host at 6 P.M. GMT on Friday.
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