Belfast Telegraph

Portugal boss Fernando Santos expects tough Spain test despite Lopetegui sacking

Fernando Hierro has taken charge of Spain at short notice.

Portugal coach Fernando Santos does not think Spain will be significantly weakened by the sudden departure of coach Julen Lopetegui.

Lopetegui was sacked by the Spanish Football Federation on Wednesday, just two days before his country’s eagerly-anticipated World Cup opener against Santos’ side in Sochi, having accepted a job at Real Madrid.

Fernando Hierro has taken charge at short notice, but with Spain still rated as one of the top teams in the competition, Santos does not expect the disruption to overly affect them.

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Julen Lopetegui was sacked by Spain on the eve of the World Cup (Mike Egerton/PA)

Speaking at his pre-match press conference, as reported on the Portuguese Football Federation’s website, www.fpf.pt, Santos said: “It does not seem to me that there is a disadvantage on the part of Spain. I do not expect any surprises.

“There will be two on-field teams that will want to win the game. The most important thing is the clash between the two teams. It has everything to be a great game.

“We are prepared for a tricky game but we are confident that we are capable.”

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Fernando Santos led Portugal to Euro 2016 glory (Mike Egerton/Empics)

Portugal are the reigning European champions and they will carry confidence from their success two years ago into the tournament in Russia.

Santos said: “Portugal leaves for the World Cup with the same conviction that left for the last European (Championship). We have great respect for the opponents, but with a great thirst for victory.”

Portugal will also face Morocco and Iran in Group B but their opener against their neighbours and fellow European heavyweights has been the prime focus of their build-up.

The clash could offer early indications of the title credentials of either team.

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Moutinho offers Portugal vast experience (Mike Egerton/Empics)

Experienced midfielder Joao Moutinho, who sat alongside Santos at the Fisht Stadium, accepts Portugal may not be one of the top favourites but he feels they are capable of challenging.

The 31-year-old, who has won 110 caps, said: “We never hide that we are candidates. The favourites are those who traditionally are (favourites), but we are candidates. We are champions of Europe, although that does not give us favouritism.”

Spain triumphed the last time the sides met in the World Cup, in South Africa eight years ago. The Spaniards also have the better head-to-head record between the countries, having won 16 of their 35 meetings, compared to Portugal’s six.

Yet with a strong group of players of which Cristiano Ronaldo is the leading light, Moutinho feels Portugal are ready for the challenge.

He said: “We expect an extremely strong and united team that will create great difficulties, but we will want to play our game and hope to emerge victorious.

“We have a strong, united and focused group that knows what its responsibilities are.

“We have pressure in every game when we represent the country, and we have the responsibility of representing the people who have placed their hopes in us.

“It’s a good pressure that we have, to do our best to be able to win the games.”

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