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World Cup 2010: Spain vs. Portugal

Portugal (No.3 in the world) face Spain (No. 2) just days after Brazil (No.1). Hope you enjoyed the scintillating 120 minutes of scorelessness Paraguay and Japan provided, because this could be more of the same. It is a classic matchup of offense against defense. Spain will hold possession and slam repeatedly against the Portuguese defense. The Portuguese will stand resolute and try to hit Spain on the counter. Despite a startling amount of talent and skill on the field, this could be another Portugal-Brazil match.

Form: Spain won Group H despite losing opening match 1-0 to Switzerland. They bounced back with modest wins over Honduras 2-0 and over Chile 2-1. Portugal finished second in Group G with five points. They held Ivory Coast and Brazil to 0-0 draws and crushed North Korea 7-0.

History: The Spanish have qualified for 10 World Cups since 1962. They have advanced to the quarterfinals three times and the second round six times. Portugal has reached four World Cups and made the semifinals twice in 1966 and 2006.

Matchup: Spain need to stay wide, stretch the Portuguese defense and play around rather than through them. This will also keep Coentrao pinned back. Defensively they need to take out Ronaldo. Spain should cut off his support and force him to come away from goal to get the ball. He led the tournament with 11 shots from outside the area. He did not score on them. Most of all the Spanish need to be aggressive. This team has been coasting for months. Their group stage performance was listless and nonchalant. There’s no greater sign of that than the six straight matches without a booking. If Spain don’t show more spirit here, Portugal could catch them.

It will be crucial for Spain to keep Torres on the pitch as long as they can.  His injuries, rather than the haircut, have strapped his strength.  But, he’s been filling the Emile Heskey role for Spain, forcing defenses to account for him and creating space for David Villa, who is far better running off a lead striker.

The Portuguese will start with a similar setup to the one against Brazil, meaning they are playing for a clean sheet.  Portugal did not allow a goal in the group stages.  They allowed just one in their last 12 matches.  The Portuguese should use their three central midfielders to box Xavi in midfield and force an injured Xabi Alonso to be the playmaker. Six Portuguese players are a yellow card away from suspension for their next match, but they need to get there to worry about it. Deco is not in the starting eleven. That may be a good thing.  Portugal has yet to prove they can score against reputable opposition.  If they do score, it will come from quick counterattacks by Ronaldo and Simao down the wings.

Prediction: Spain and Portugal have drawn five of the last seven matches they have played. Spain struggled breaking defenses down during the group stage. This reminds me of Spain’s quarterfinal matchup against Italy in Euro 2008. That ended 0-0 and went to penalties. I think Spain find a way to score. 1-0 Spain in regulation.

[Photos via @cristiano and Getty]

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