After a long wait, the 2018 FIFA World Cup is here and it is already building momentum and interest as the opening group matches are honoured.
Yesterday, after a spectacular opening ceremony, hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia kicked off the competition to pave the way for an exciting one-month football fiesta.
Today, one of Africa’s representatives Egypt and Uruguay clash in a Group A contest, while Group B also takes its turn with some crunch games: a mouth-watering Spain versus Portugal contest, and Morocco versus Iran.
Of this week’s fixtures, it seems the most attractive matches involves two of the glamorous sides clash with former champions, Spain, coming face to face with their Iberian rivals and reigning European champions, Portugal, as they both kick-start their campaign to world glory from Group B.
Indeed, this match looks set to be one of the top matches of this World Cup, given the pedigree of the two sides, as well as the quality of players they currently boast of.
Besides the crucial points at stake, there is an old score to settle as Portugal seek to avenge losses they have suffered at the hands of the Rojas.
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Spain beat Portugal 1-0 in South Africa eight years ago before knocking them out on penalties two years later, at Euro 2012.
Portugal have never won the World Cup and their best ever finish is third place at the 1966 tournament in England, and with everything in football won except a World Cup trophy for their star player, Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese definitely have their eyes set on the coveted trophy as they plan to replicate their Euro 2016 championship success in Russia.
Having sacked their coach just days before the kickoff, replacing Julen Lopetegui with the team’s Technical Director and Spanish legend, Fernando Hierro, 2010 champions Spain still believe there is no need to worry about their cohesion in the team, as the players have vowed to put this behind them and fight for their country.
Lopetegui, who had led Spain to an unbeaten run of 20 matches since he took charge, was sacked last Tuesday for accepting the vacant Real Madrid job after the World Cup, without first informing his current employers, the Spanish Football Federation.
With this unexpected change, the 2010 winners will be desperate to put on a show in Russia after their embarrassing group stage exit in 2014.
Spain struggled in Brazil four years ago but qualified for Russia with ease, winning nine out of their 10 matches and scoring 36 goals in the process.
This will be Spain’s 14th World Cup finals and they look well equipped to go far in the tournament.
Despite the changes and some of the big names left out of the Spain squad, the Rojas are still spoilt for choice and boast of a quality midfield that no doubt will be their strength; they also have a solid defence built around Manchester United’s David De Gea, one of the best goalkeepers around, having replaced the legendary shot stopper, Iker Casillas.
The other group game will be between one of Africa’s five representatives, Morocco, against Iran. Both are making their fifth World Cup appearance, and with the man with the magic touch, Frenchman Herve Renard in charge the Atlas Lions of Morocco seem to have the belief that they will look good in Russia.
Renard and his men qualified for the tournament without losing a match, winning three and drawing goalless in the other three games.
Handled by Portuguese Carlos Quieroz Iran also come into this competition as a strong side, topping their qualifying group which had the likes of South Korea and Qatar, with 22 points from 10 games .
However, main competitions like the World Cup are an entirely different ball game from qualifiers and both would realise this as soon as they get into action.
Quieroz’s side seem to have a slight edge, given the World Cup experience as against Renard who is making his debut as a coach.