MOSCOW: For two World Cups in succession, Spain are drawing serious opposition in the league stage. Four years ago, the Netherlands set Salvador’s Fonte Nova Arena on fire which left the then defending champions searching for an escape route in their opening game. The 1-5 drubbing turned out to be the biggest debacle for a world champion team defending its title.
ALSO READ: The key for a coach is to adapt: Deschamps
The parallel is too fresh to ignore in Russia, and no one is letting any opportunity pass to drop hints. Before leaving for Sochi, Portugal’s Joao Mario marked his team’s introductory engagement against Spain as a special occasion.
“Matches between Portugal and Spain are always special. We have to give our best and I am sure that the whole team will fight, and not just Cristiano,” the Inter Milan midfielder said at a press conference in Krastovo, their base camp.
Dating back to the 1920s, the Iberian rivalry is considered one of the oldest in the game. But the contest has gained more importance after the emergence of Ronaldo, who will be leading the current European champions in what’s most likely to be his final appearance in a Copa de Mundo.
The two nations have met in a continental event twice in the last eight years, where Spain came out on top – but barely.
Ronaldo key as Portugal aim maiden World Cup glory
Manchester City midfielder Bernardo Silva, following an immensely successful league season under Pep Guardiola, is bristling with confidence. In a recent interview to a Spanish newspaper, Silva spoke about Spain’s top billing and high expectations. “But there is Ronaldo with us, the best player in the world and of course, irreplaceable.”
Just around the corner, Silva is thrilled at the prospect of lining up alongside Ronaldo in his first opportunity at the highest level. “It is the ambition that sets him apart from the rest,” said the midfielder, primed to take up the mantle once CR7 relinquishes the throne. Overlooked by his childhood favourite Benfica, Silva has finally found his calling at City. And the real possibility of sharing the stage with his captain, with the world’s eyes on them, excites him no end.
“He has five Ballon d’Ors and five Champions League titles and has spent 10 years scoring more than 40 goals a season…” Silva rallied. “That he’s managed to maintain that level gives you an idea of what he represents as a player. The majority of players with two or three Ballon d’Ors want to relax and enjoy the life but Cristiano keeps pushing himself. He’s our reference point, an example for everyone and we hope that he’s in his best form. Only if he’s good can Portugal hope to achieve big things.”
As talks of Ronaldo’s Portugal career gets annoyingly recurrent, Silva knows that when the time comes, he’s the favourite to replace Ronaldo and it’s hardly an easy task. But Silva would want to slowly slip into his shoes, if that is at all possible.
“When he wants to leave, there will be a group with a very high level and I think we can maintain that. I hope to be one of those players, I have ambition and obviously I will give my best to help.”
Losing the “best in Portugal” is not in the forefront of Portugal’s worries right now. Challenging Andres Iniesta’s Spain, who the experts have already anointed as the team to beat, is the imminent responsibility. Both Mario and Silva, likely starters on Friday, will draw a lot of succour from the absent Dutch brigade.
Source : timesofindia