Shell-shocked Spain face Portugal in early World Cup treat
Julen Lopetegui (Getty)
Spain face Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal on Friday in a mouth-watering
clash following the extraordinary sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui as
Egypt's Mohamed Salah is set for a dramatic return from injury against
After host nation Russia's rousing 5-0 win against Saudi Arabia, the
World Cup kicks into high gear with three games, the highlight of which
will be the match between Ronaldo's European champions and 2010 World
Cup winners Spain.
Spain were one of the favourites when they arrived in Russia after a
two-year unbeaten run under Lopetegui but Wednesday's decision by the
Spanish football federation to dump him after it was announced he would
be joining Real Madrid following the tournament left the squad reeling.
Former Real stalwart Fernando Hierro has been thrown into the deep
end as head coach, with little coaching experience and huge pressure on
Hierro, though, was part of Spain's squad at four World Cups between
1990 and 2002 and also played his part as sporting director when La Roja
won their only World Cup in 2010.
"There is nobody better than Fernando. He was a great player and has known us for a long time," said Spain captain Sergio Ramos.
Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales was furious at being given
just five minutes' notice before Real's announcement to hire Lopetegui
The appointment, the federation also feared, could have opened up
Spanish football's age-old fault line between the squad's Madrid and
Ramos, who also skippers Real Madrid, reportedly led a last-minute
intervention on behalf of the players to try and save Lopetegui's job but
insisted this week's events had not upset any relationships within the
"There are no cracks. We are all individuals and we all think
differently but the collective idea is the same - we are here to go for
the World Cup," he said.
On the field, Ramos's task will be to keep Real teammate Ronaldo quiet in the Group B fixture.
Portugal have enjoyed a calmer build-up despite the world player of
the year's explosive outburst after winning the Champions League final
that he is set to leave the Spanish giants.
For now the 33-year-old's focus is on his fourth and probably last chance to win a World Cup at the peak of his powers.
Ronaldo has so far failed to match his heroics for Manchester United
and Real at the World Cup, scoring just three goals in three tournaments
against Iran, North Korea and Ghana.
Egypt coach Hector Cuper
says Salah is almost certain to play in Yekaterinburg on his 26th
birthday, nearly three weeks after he left the field during the
Champions League final in Kiev clutching his shoulder in agony after
being wrestled to the ground by Ramos.
Salah scored 44 goals in a remarkable debut season for Liverpool but
tournament dark horses Uruguay boast an even more fearsome strike
partnership in Barcelona's Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani of Paris
Russia's 5-0 thrashing of the Saudis in Thursday's Group A opener
also puts pressure on both sides to get off to a good start with the
hosts now full of confidence they can make the last 16.
Friday's other Group B match pits Iran, coached by former Real Madrid
manager Carlos Queiroz, against Morocco, guided by charismatic
Frenchman Herve Renard.
Queiroz freely admits Iran are the underdogs of the group but has
used a decision by Nike to halt supplies of boots to some of his players
because of sanctions as a way to unite his squad.
"We are using the difficulties as a source of inspiration for our motivation to be strengthened during the games," said Queiroz.