Spain and Portugal both distracted before World Cup opener
MOSCOW (AP) — Spain and Portugal meet for just the second time in the World Cup in one of the most intriguing games of the group stage. Spain is in chaos after firing its coach two days before Friday’s match, and Portugal has been fending off distractions since star Cristiano Ronaldo hinted at an upcoming announcement about his future.
The Group B match in Sochi is at Fisht Olympic Stadium, the first World Cup game to be played at the venue.
The Spanish soccer federation fired coach Julen Lopetegui because he accepted a job to coach Real Madrid after the tournament. Lopetegui was unbeaten in his 20 matches in charge of the national team. Fernando Hierro, a former Spain player who had been acting as the team’s sports director in Russia, will lead the country in his first major coaching job.
“I’ve been near a ball for 30 years,” Hierro said while dismissing his lack of coaching experience.
Prior to the stunning firing of Lopetegui, it had been Portugal trying to stay focused on the match. Ronaldo hinted after the Champions League final he might leave Madrid, but said he wouldn’t reveal his plans until he joined the national team. It’s had the attention on Ronaldo instead of the match.
Portugal won the 2016 European Championship, has 13 players from that team in Russia, and looked much like that winning squad in a 3-0 preseason victory over Algeria.
Here’s a look at the two other group stage games Friday:
EGYPT VS. URUGUAY
Egypt is making its first World Cup appearance in 28 years and its success will depend on the health of Mohamed Salah, the Liverpool star who injured his shoulder in the Champions League final.
If Salah can’t play in the Group A match in Yekaterinburg, Egypt could struggle against the deep Uruguayan squad. Egypt may also start the oldest player in World Cup history if 45-year-old goalkeeper Essam El Hadary gets in the game.
Oscar Tabarez leads two-time champion Uruguay into his fourth World Cup — most among all coaches in this year’s tournament — and third in a row. His teams have always made it out of the group stage, including a semifinal appearance in South Africa in 2010. That was the last time Uruguay moved past the round of 16 in its last six World Cup appearances.
MOROCCO VS. IRAN
This match of Group B underdogs at St. Petersburg Stadium, and Morocco is the only one of the teams that has ever made it out of group stage — but that was in 1986.
Morocco is unbeaten in its last 12 matches, but only two of those games were against World Cup teams. Iran has lost twice in its last five friendlies and has never gotten past the first round.
But Iran has a two-pronged threat in Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the top scorer in the Dutch league, and Sardar Azmoun, who is fifth on Iran’s all-time list with 23 goals despite being only 23 years old.
This match is expected to decide third place in Group B.
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