Weblog: The football punter

Spain's sudden pain can be eased with derby win

World Cup Group B
BBC1, 7pm Friday

Spain's chaotic preparation for the World Cup has seen them drift to a nice price to beat Portugal and it could be worth trusting Fernando Hierro's men to get it right on the night in Sochi.

Sacking Julen Lopetegui on Thursday was far from ideal, the former boss given the boot after sneakily agreeing a deal to join Real Madrid on the eve of the tournament, and in unprecedented scenes Hierro steps in as caretaker having previously been director of football.

What Hierro lacks in coaching expertise - he had one season as the main man in the Spanish second division with Real Oviedo - he makes up for in overall football experience and it would be wrong to make any assumptions as to whether he is any better or worse than Lopetegui.

The Real Madrid players have basically been coaching themselves for years and it's not that different with the Barcelona contingent.

If any group of players can get by at this World Cup without their original manager it is probably Spain and Hierro gave a reassuring press conference, saying: "The key is to change as little as possible. We cannot change anything in two days."

It would be much worse had anyone arrived to replace Lopetegui aiming to stamp their own style on the side. All the planning and team shape has been done and this is the same group of players who have gone 20 matches unbeaten since Euro 2016 finished.

Defeat to Portugal would change everything. There would likely be carnage in the dressing room, but for now it would be wrong to go overboard about losing Lopetegui, who failed at Porto and was on the verge of heading to Wolves a couple of years ago.

David de Gea is still in goal. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique form the heart of a defence expertly shielded by Sergio Busquets and the probing passing qualities of Isco, Andres Iniesta and David Silva are more crucial than whoever is sitting in the dugout.

Portugal arrive in Russia with the tag of European champions and possessing one of the world's best goalscorers in Cristiano Ronaldo but they remain reliant on the 33-year-old.

Fernando Santos's side struggled in most of their Euro 2016 matches, winning just one in regulation time and not once did they notch inside the opening 30 minutes.

Santos quite often plays it safe and it worked in terms of results two years ago despite the performances, but influential centre-backs Pep and Jose Fonte are 35 and 34 respectively, while Portugal's Sporting selection (Bruno Fernandes, William Carvalho, Gelson Martins and Rui Patricio) have had just as much trouble pre-tournament as Spain.

They have all walked out on the crisis club, causing a storm back home, and if Spain can get their heads right they look comfortably the more likely winners of this critical Iberian derby.


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