Spain and Portugal lock horns in first World Cup meeting

Cape Town: The saliva is already pooling on the floor in Cape Town as mouths water ahead of the first ever World Cup football match between neighbours Spain and Portugal who meet Tuesday evening in the final Round of 16 match.

Much is expected of the game, which will pit the likes of Portugal`s Cristiano Ronaldo and Deco against Xavi Hernandez and the on-fire David Villa in Cape Town`s Green Point stadium.

But there is a chance that the free-flowing, high-scoring game the game promises on paper will fail to materialise.

Spain cast off their reputation as big-tournament chokers when they won the 2008 European Championships, and came into the World Cup as joint-favourites with Brazil.

Yet their star-studded squad has so far not fulfilled its attacking potential, while Portugal have proven stingy in defence.

Wins over Honduras (2-0) and ten-man Chile (2-1) saw Spain through at the top of Group H despite a shock 1-0 defeat to Switzerland in the opening game.

Striker Fernando Torres has been a pale imitation of his old self, and Spain have had to rely on David Villa, who has scored three of their four goals so far.

Portugal have taken notice.

`We know that Spain had some difficulties in their first games,` Portuguese midfielder Raul Meireles said. `We have to play to win.`

If Torres has struggled to score against less-illustrious opposition, he is likely to find the going tougher against a Portuguese team yet to concede a goal despite being landed in this year`s Group of Death.

Neither Brazil, Ivory Coast nor North Korea could breach the rearguard of Portugal, who finished second in Group G.

Spain boss Vicente del Bosque, while wary of Ronaldo, feels this defensive strength is the biggest threat to his team`s progression to a quarter-final tie against either Japan or Paraguay.

`Cristiano is one of their best players, but we mustn`t forget that the Portuguese are the only team that still haven`t conceded a goal at this World Cup,` he said. `Their game is based around defensive solidity, pace and counter-attacking, as well as having very skilful players.`

The flip side of the coin is that Portugal have struggled to score - which may seem an odd statement for a team with seven goals from three games.

But all of their goals came against lowly North Korea. The matches against Ivory Coast and Brazil were turgid 0-0 draws.

Ronaldo, despite ending a 15-month international goal drought against North Korea with a bizarre and very lucky goal, still seems to be struggling to translate his club form to the world stage.

His desperation to shine showed against Brazil, when he often tried over-ambitious, and ineffectual, shots from distance when a pass would have been the better option.

Nonetheless, Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz is convinced his team has not yet shown its true menace.

`Portugal`s best is still to come,` he said.

Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso, a key player, is likely to miss the game with an ankle injury sustained in the win over Chile.

The Spaniards have quality options aplenty on the bench with Cesc Fabregas and David Silva desperate for more playing time - although the rumour is that del Bosque will go with the more-defensive Javi Martinez to nullify Portugal`s attacking threat.

Playmaker Deco missed Portugal`s matches against North Korea and Brazil, but is expected to return and bring some more creativity to the midfield.

Bureau Report

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