Sochi (Russia) (AFP) – Spain face Portugal on Friday in a mouthwatering clash following the extraordinary sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui while Egypt left out Mohamed Salah and suffered a gut-wrenching 1-0 defeat in the final minutes to Uruguay.
Defender Jose Gimenez headed in the 89th-minute match winner as the South Americans defeated an Egyptian side sorely missing star player Salah in their opener in Yekaterinburg.
Uruguay’s last-gasp victory leaves them and Russia in early control in Group A after the hosts thrashed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the tournament opener on Thursday.
Salah, who has been receiving intensive treatment on a shoulder he injured in the Champions League final, played no part in the match despite Egypt coach Hector Cuper saying beforehand that the Liverpool striker would be involved.
After the defeat, Cuper said: “He did not play today because we wanted to avoid risk or danger, but I think that he will be fine for the next match.”
FIFA said they were investigating why there were large sections of empty seats at the Yekaterinburg Arena. The attendance was 27,015 despite FIFA saying most of the tickets had been sold for the match at the 33,061-capacity stadium.
– Spain pressure –
The clash between Cristiano Ronaldo’s European champions and 2010 World Cup winners Spain in Sochi is an early highlight of the competition.
Spain were left reeling after Lopetegui was hastily sacked on Wednesday after announcing he would take over the Real Madrid job following the tournament.
The shock move casts doubt over Spain’s status as one of the favourites for the title.
Former Real stalwart Fernando Hierro has been thrown into the deep end as head coach, with little coaching experience and huge pressure on his shoulders.
Hierro, though, was part of Spain’s squad at four World Cups between 1990 and 2002 and also played his part as sporting director when La Roja won their only World Cup in 2010.
“There is nobody better than Fernando. He was a great player and has known us for a long time,” said Spain captain Sergio Ramos.
Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales was furious at being given just five minutes’ notice before Real’s announcement to hire Lopetegui on Tuesday.
The appointment, the federation also feared, could have opened up Spanish football’s age-old faultline between the squad’s Madrid and Barcelona-based players.
Ramos, who also skippers Real Madrid, reportedly led a last-minute intervention on behalf of the players to try and save Lopetegui’s job but insisted this week’s events had not upset any relationships within the squad.
“There are no cracks. 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.
On the field, Ramos’s task will be to keep Real teammate Ronaldo quiet in the Group B fixture.
Portugal have enjoyed a calmer build-up despite the world player of the year’s explosive outburst after winning the Champions League final that he is set to leave the Spanish giants.
For now the 33-year-old’s focus is on his fourth and probably last chance to win a World Cup at the peak of his powers.
Ronaldo has so far failed to match his heroics for Manchester United and Real at the World Cup, scoring just three goals in three tournaments against Iran, North Korea and Ghana.
Friday’s other Group B match pits Iran, coached by former Real Madrid manager Carlos Queiroz, against Morocco, guided by charismatic Frenchman Herve Renard.
Queiroz freely admits Iran are the underdogs of the group but has used a decision by Nike to halt supplies of boots to some of his players because of sanctions as a way to unite his squad.
Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson warned Lionel Messi’s Argentina will underestimate his World Cup debutants at their peril in Saturday’s Group D opener.
Hallgrimsson said the Icelanders, who famously dumped England out of Euro 2016 on their way to the quarter-finals, were primed for their first-ever match in football’s global showpiece.
“We’ve shown that if we work together as one unit, like we’ve been doing, then anything is achievable and it won’t come as a shock,” he said.