Cape Town: Spain`s golden generation faces its sternest World Cup test against Portugal tomorrow, with Cristiano Ronaldo standing in the way of a spot in the quarterfinals.
The Iberian neighbors have limped into the last 16 scantly looking like the world`s second and third-ranked nations. But they know that one quality performance is all that`s needed for an enviable quarterfinal against either Paraguay or Japan.
The match promises to be a tense battle among players who know each other well. Seven of the Portuguese play in Spain`s La Liga, including captain Ronaldo. And there are 14 holdovers from both squads that met six years ago in their last major encounter, a 1-0 win for Portugal that knocked Spain out of the 2004 European championship.
"It`s all for the winner and nothing for the loser now," Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz said. "We are motivated and prepared to leave it all on the field."
Xabi Alonso is a doubt for Spain with a right ankle sprain, and 21-year-old midfielder Javi Martinez of Athletic Bilbao may take his place. Playmaker Cesc Fabregas and winger David Silva also are in the reckoning for Spain, which has yet to have a single player booked.
Portugal has seven players carrying yellow cards, including Ronaldo, but no suspensions. Midfielder Deco is likely to return from a right hip injury, but speedy forward Danny may be unavailable.
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said his team needs to improve after failing to impress in its first three matches.
"We`ve already suffered quite a bit," he said. "They`ve been hard days and they`ve strengthened us."
Spain entered the World Cup as a favorite, with Ronaldo`s Portugal not far behind. And in a topsy turvy World Cup, these two teams have made it to where they are supposed to be - despite early hiccups.
The Spaniards won their group after a shock opening loss to Switzerland, beating Honduras 2-0 and 10-man Chile 2-1; Portugal finished second in its group behind Brazil after its 7-0 thrashing of North Korea compensated for scoreless draws with the Ivory Coast, and a largely second-string Selecao.
Neither team has lived up to its hype, offering only fleeting moments of flair despite their talent.
Spain, the reigning European champion, dominates ball possession in a midfield run by Barcelona pair Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. It`s the end product that has been lame, with Fernando Torres particularly wasteful in the group matches as he finds his way back from knee surgery.
"The most important thing is that he`s played three games and he`s better," Del Bosque said. "Though he hasn`t brought goals, he`s a player who has helped us because he draws the defense, as he`s such a threat to our opponents. With space, he`s always a dangerous player."
Portugal, which had previously relied on the guile of Deco and star quality of Ronaldo, is a different team at this tournament.
The back line has hardened, with Bruno Alves more assured than Pepe in central defense, and Eduardo`s positioning a vast improvement over deposed goalkeeper Ricardo. It`s the only team that hasn`t conceded a goal in South Africa. But aside from the destruction of North Korea, the attack has looked disjointed.
"We`re playing Cristiano but also a great team, a generation of players that has played together for years, and one of the strongest rivals at this World Cup," Del Bosque said. "I don`t think we should worry so much over the individuals. They play like a true team. They defend well. They`re well organized, are strong on the counterattack. They get out quickly."
Portugal may be playing as more of a team, but it will still be Ronaldo that teammates will look to for inspiration.
The 25-year-old Real Madrid forward bewildered defenses at club level in his first season at Real Madrid, justifying his tag as the world`s most expensive player, but has rarely produced his best for the national team.
He scored a late goal against the Koreans, but was kept off the ball for long periods of Portugal`s other matches.
The match against Spain may be Ronaldo`s last chance to shine at this World Cup.