Spain-Portugal set stage for spectacular letdown

Portugalís Cristiano Ronaldo fights for the ball during a match against Brazil during the 2010...

Portugalís Cristiano Ronaldo fights for the ball during a match against Brazil during the 2010 World Cup at Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban on June 25, 2010. (YVES HERMAN/Reuters)

GARETH WHEELER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:51 PM ET

JOHANNESBURG -- They are the second- and third-ranked teams in the world, according to FIFA.

Regardless if you put any stock in those arbitrary rankings, Spain and Portugal on Tuesday night in Cape Town should be something special.

This is the first time the Iberian sides will meet in a World Cup. And they share much more than a border.

Both teams, blessed with special talent and a great deal of depth, have yet to reach full stride in South Africa.

The book on Spain's World Cup journey has disappointing written all over it.

Losing the opener to Switzerland, only scoring twice against a far inferior Honduras team and a fortunate 2-1 win over Chile -- thanks to a laughable sending off of Marco Estrada -- are all examples of their challenges.

Yet Spain finished atop the group and avoided Brazil. Mission accomplished, so it seems.

To this point, the story on Portugal is much different. The book reads "to be continued." There can be no gauge of the Portuguese at the World Cup whatsoever; we don't know how strong or weak they are.

Portugal's opener against the Ivory Coast was a cagey affair. Nothing was really doing either way, with the exception of Cristiano Ronaldo hitting the woodwork.

The 7-0 thumping of North Korea was a mere formality -- a win was always in the cards. So yes, Portugal is vastly superior than weaker opponents. But that does nothing to help explain how they may fare against Spain.

And Portugal's last game, the much-hyped "Duel in Durban" against Brazil was boring and uninspired. With each team only needing a draw to advance, a stalemate became predictable. And the crowd left disappointed.

It was rather surprising Portugal didn't press more to win the match to win the group. Perhaps it was because Group H had not yet been settled and there was no sure thing Spain would win the group. The lacking of cutting edge in that game has dealt them a much tougher match. Chile is a far cry from the quality of the Spanish.

But still, there's reason to believe and have a certain confidence in the Portuguese. They have yet to concede a goal and their goalkeeper Eduardo looks unbeatable. Give credit to Ricardo Carvalho as well for commandeering a solid backline. The marquee matchup to watch against Spain will be the battle between Carvalho and striker David Villa.

Villa, the new Barcelona man, has been Spain's most dynamic player and is a constant threat to score. If Carvalho and company contain Villa, Portugal can win the game. Fernando Torres looks hardly fit, and the rest of the Spanish attack looks sluggish.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Spanish coach Vicente Del Bosque is reluctant to set Cecs Fabregas free off the bench. Even if Xabi Alonso (ankle) isn't good to go, it appears Javi Martinez would take his place, not Fabregas. The move is crazy, as Fabregas has next level kind of quality. It doesn't matter if Del Bosque doesn't want to play Fabregas with Iniesta and Xavi.

The three would be preferable as a dominant midfield triumvirate in favour of the struggling Torres. Dominate the midfield and rattle Portugal's offensive momentum.

Aside from the output against North Korea, the Portuguese flow in attack has been erratic. Their most effective weapon going forward has been wingback Fabio Coentrao getting down the line. He's been a lively contributor without much around him to capitalize on his decisiveness.

Unfortunately, the press finds it convenient to merely speak of Ronaldo and seems to forget about the rest of the side when it comes to Portugal. The most interesting part about Ronaldo is the coach Carlos Queiroz decision to play him as the lone high man, with Danny playing off of him.

For me, I want my best player getting more involved. Too many times Ronaldo has become a chaser in games. He needs the ball at his feet and that happens in the midfield. Unfortunately for Queiroz, he doesn't have a whole lot of other options up front. So look for Ronaldo to drop into deep positions to get involved, altering the shape of the side.

A Portugal win would be an upset, but not surprising. Spain was a team hobbled by injury coming into the tournament and it may be playing a negative role.

Still, Iniesta and Xavi are simply magic in the middle and seem to be hitting better form. If they don't, the Euro champs will leave South Africa prematurely for the second time in a year.


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