World Cup 2018 will be barely 24 hours old when one of the most anticipated group games of the tournament, Portugal vs Spain in a fixture known terrifyingly as ‘the Iberian War’, unfolds.
Mind you, it’s not as if time seems to be a commodity that Spain place any importance in; why else would they sack coach Julen Lopetegui just a matter of hours prior to the World Cup kicking off?
We know he had signed a deal to take over as Real Madrid boss at the end of the competition, but there must be more going on behind the scenes that we haven’t heard about. The fact that the players were reportedly behind the manager suggests that there is more to this than meets the eye….
Not that Portugal will mind, of course. The European champions have enjoyed a rather more peaceful set of preparations in readiness for the tournament, and they will be looking to add a second major trophy to their collection in the space of two years.
That aspiration is a long way away, however, and their first mission is to take advantage of any Spanish malaise on Friday evening.
Hysteria in Iberia
There’s nothing quite like a good footballing rivalry, and there is something even more ferocious about it when the bad blood is on an international basis. It adds an extra layer of passion to proceedings when two foes meet so infrequently, and it was six years ago when Spain and Portugal last went toe to toe.
Indeed, in both of their last two meaningful meetings in the World Cup of 2010 and the European Championships two years later, it was Spain who had the upper hand. They won 1-0 in that World Cup in South Africa, before triumphing on penalties in Donetsk two years later.
Sandwiched in between those two meetings was a 4-0 win for the Portuguese in a friendly, but you have to go back to 2004 to find the last time that Portugal beat their neighbours in a competitive fixture.
Time will have done very little to sweeten relations between the two nations, and there will be plenty of ‘lively’ tackles going in on Friday.
Expect the Spanish Inquisition
It would be fair to suggest that Spain have a habit of delighting and frustrating their fans in equal measure, although the past few years have given way to a rather fallow period after the highs that had come previously.
European champions in 2008 and 2012, the Spanish enjoyed a rather tasty sandwich with the World Cup in 2010 as the satisfying filling. La Roja had won three major trophies on the bounce, and were seemingly invincible on the big stage.
And then something strange happened: they got demolished 1-5 by Holland in the first game of World Cup 2014. It was so unexpected, so unprecedented, that they never quite managed to recover, losing again to Chile before a meaningless win over Australia in a dead rubber.
Euro 2016 was hardly any better either. They needed an 87th minute goal from Gerard Pique to see off the Czech Republic, lost to Croatia and were eventually dumped out of the competition in the last 16 by Italy.
It appears this generation of Spanish players have lost their edge in major tournaments; is that a trend that will continue in Russia?
Portuguese Men of War
Football is about scoring at least one more goal than your opponent: either in regulation time, extra time or in a penalty shootout.
That, and little more, was what Portugal accomplished in 2016 when they won the European Championships. You may recall that they drew all three of their group games, and as such were lucky to progress to the knockout phase.
There, they won three of their four matches by a single goal in extra time or on penalties, so you could argue there was an element of luck to their tournament victory – as well as an ability to get stronger as their opponents were fading.
The sad thing about the Portugal team is that Ronaldo will possibly be playing in it as a 37 year old and will still be the best player on the team 😭
— Alex 🍌 (@TheGamingClaw) June 30, 2018
You look at their side on paper and a repeat in Russia looks wholly unlikely. There’s an ageing, creaking backline (Pepe is 35, Jose Fonte 34 and Bruno Alves 36), a solid but unspectacular midfield and an attack that will lean heavily on Cristiano Ronaldo; he can’t do it all on his own, can he?
Portugal vs Spain: The Verdict
There is no love lost here and no quarter given; a recipe that can usually lead to tight and cagey affairs.
In truth, we simply don’t know how Spain will react to Lopetegui’s dismissal; could they be galvanized or gazumped? Either way, we know this is unlikely to be a high scoring affair: the last three competitive meetings between these sides have ended 0-0, 1-0 and 1-0.
You could make a case for either side to win or the draw, so instead stick to the goals-based angles for your bets. Principally, Under 2.5 Goals looks a decent play at 8/13, with Portugal sitting deep to protect their elderly defence.