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France

Sochi gears up for Portugal, Spain clash of football titans

media Champions League Semi Final Second Leg - Real Madrid v Bayern Munich - Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, Spain - May 1, 2018 Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo in action. REUTERS/Paul Hanna

Spain and Portugal meet on Friday in Sochi for one of the most anticipated early highlights of the 2018 World Cup.

The Spanish team had been tipped as one of the favourites to win the trophy after a two year unbeaten run under coach Julen Lopetegui.

But those predictions were left in tatters on Wednesday after the Spanish FA sacked him for taking the manager’s post at Real Madrid.

Former Real Madrid defender Fernando Hierro has taken over. But there are huge question marks over his suitability. The 50-year-old former Spain international has only one season's managerial experience in the Spanish second division with Real Oviedo.

Spain captain, Sergio Ramos, said: “There is nobody better than Fernando. He was a great player and has known us for a long time."

According to the Spanish FA, Real's appointment of Lopetegui could have opened up Spanish football's eternal faultline between the squad's Madrid and Barcelona-based players.

Ramos, who also skippers Real Madrid, insisted the dismissal had not upset any relationships. "There are no cracks,” he added. “We are all individuals and we all think differently, but the collective idea is the same - we are here to go for the World Cup," he said.

Hierro, himself a former Real Madrid captain, said the national team did not have time to feel sorry for itself. He added: "The objective is to fight for a World Cup. The players have been working towards this for two years. I've told them that we have a wonderful, exciting challenge and we can't let what has happened be an excuse to distract us from our dream."

Portugal have enjoyed a calmer prelude. The brouhaha, naturally, centres around Ronaldo. The Real Madrid star is the country’s record goalscorer with 81 strikes in a record 150 matches stretching back 14 years.

He captained the team to the 2016 European championships in France – Portugal’s first piece of international silverware.

A second bauble might be the perfect way to say goodbye.

 
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