Villa and Ronaldo key in World Cup’s first Iberian clash

By Dan Levy

Posted on Tuesday, 29 June 2010 16:31

Spain meet Portugal for the very first time at the World Cup in Tuesday’s second round evening game. With some of the world’s best on display, it should be a fascinating derby.

The all-Iberian second round tie between Group H winners Spain and Group G runners-up Portugal would suggest a game of attacking élan and flair. Not least because it will feature the world’s most expensive player, Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo, who cost Real Madrid €94m ($114.5m) last summer and boasts an extraordinary array of attacking abilities, as well as the tournament’s, best striker, Spaniard David Villa.

But this contest, the first between the two nations at a World Cup, may well prove a battle of two sides focused on the arts of ball-retention and defending. Portugal are yet to concede a goal at this World Cup and hold 22 clean sheets from their last 26 games. Their results in South Africa read 0-0, 7-0, 0-0. Granted they did fire seven past North Korea, but we can’t read too much into a thrashing of Kim Jong-Hun’s side. The game also saw Ronaldo score his first competitive goal for Portugal in nearly two years, despite scoring a goal in every game he started during his debut season at Real Madrid.

Portugal’s Mozambique-born coach Carlos Queiroz has come in for a lot of criticism for the national side’s uninspiring performances since he took over, as well as the fact they needed two 1-0 play-off wins over Bosnia-Herzegovina to qualify for this World Cup after finishing second behind Denmark in qualifying. They may not thrill, but Portugal are very well-drilled and defend excellently, especially in terms of their positioning.

Opponents Spain are fêted for their glorious attack-minded players and started out as one of the tournament favourites. Despite trailing Brazil in the FIFA rankings, many saw the European Champions as the best team in the world, arriving in South Africa with 33 victories in 34 games. Then Spain lost to Switzerland in their very first match, and were pretty awful in the process. They picked up against Honduras with a reassuring 2-0 win as David Villa sprung into life with a superb opener before adding a second goal. He then scored and set one up as Vicente Del Bosque’s men raced into a two-nil lead against Chile, who scored despite going down to 10 men and the game ended 2-1. Villa is now Spain’s all-time leading World Cup goalscorer with 6 goals in only 7 games, and he was the top scorer at Euro 2008. He is the key man for Spain, though Xavi and Iniesta are also capable of match-winning brilliance at this level. Fernando Torres deserves a namecheck despite his rustiness, while winger David Silva is yet to get going and Jesus Navas has made an impact only from the bench.

Despite their attacking options, Spain have been playing with two defensive midfielders – usually Sergio Busquets and Xavi Alonso. Del Bosque will have to decide whether he wants to change this up and introduce the attacking inclinations of Cesc Fabregas to the middle three, allowing Xavi to play further back where he is slightly more comfortable. Portugal will look to stop Spain’s midfield schemers playing, Xavi in particular, rather than go all-out to create from the middle of the park. Especially important will be where Ronaldo plays. Everyone knows what he is capable of but his position in this game remains uncertain. It seems likely he might reprise the role of lone striker; learnt in his later time at Manchester United, this is how he was deployed in Portugal’s last group game against Brazil.

Queiroz will decide. Del Bosque’s Spain should come out victorious in a game that could be finely poised until a brilliant pass or strike opens it up. Don’t bet against it being Villa who makes the breakthrough.

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