Portugal will be happy to keep things tight in the first 45 minutes, while Spain would not be too unhappy with a goalless first half either.
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Heading into this month’s Nations League fixtures, Spain were on course to qualify for the Finals. Top of the group with two games remaining, Luis Enrique’s side were widely expected to beat Switzerland on matchday five to remain in first place for the trip to Portugal a few days later. Yet Spain came unstuck against the Swiss, going down 2-1 at home to cede the initiative to their Iberian neighbors. La Roja now have everything to do.
Switzerland are a decent side with players who ply their trade for some of the biggest clubs in Europe. They had their own incentive to pick up a positive result on Saturday; namely, the chance to climb above the Czech Republic and out of the Group A2 relegation zone. Yet while the nature of soccer as a low-scoring sport means upsets are more common than they are elsewhere, the biggest surprise in Zaragoza was that Spain were outplayed by the visitors.
It is no secret that Luis Enrique’s charges have often struggled to turn possession into clear-cut chances, and so it proved last time out: despite having a 75 percent share of the ball, Spain generated an expected goals (xG) rate of just 0.5. Their opponents, who were happy to cede possession and play on the break, were much more incisive in the final third, tallying up 1.25 xG on their way to a deserved triumph.
With the 2022 World Cup just around the corner, Spain have little time to fix that persistent weakness. Unless they can be more clinical in the creation and conversion of goalscoring opportunities, la Roja will probably fall short in Qatar.
Spain’s slip-up would have counted for nothing had Portugal also dropped points against the Czech Republic, but Fernando Santos’ side got the job done in impressive fashion. Diogo Dalot was the unlikely scorer of two goals, while Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Jota also got their names on the scoresheet in Prague.
A thumping 4-0 win means Portugal are now two points clear of the upcoming opponents, and they have a significant advantage on goal difference too (although that will no longer come into play in determining which of these two teams finishes top and advances to next summer’s Nations League Finals).
Santos found himself under heavy pressure after Portugal were eliminated from Euro 2020 in the first knockout round, but he is sitting a little more comfortably now. He guided his country through the World Cup qualification play-offs earlier this year and is now one draw away from taking them into the final four of the Nations League.
Optimism within the Portugal camp is certainly higher now than it was 12 months ago. That is important with the World Cup just around the corner, although question marks persist over whether Santos really is the right man to get the most out of an attack-heavy squad at the very highest level.
Back in 1989, Arsenal needed to beat Liverpool in their last game of the season in order to win the Premier League title (although it was technically the First Division back then). Any other result would see the Reds crowned champions. George Graham, the Arsenal manager, famously told his team not to take any risks in the first half. That might seem counterintuitive, but Graham believed the Gunners had more to lose than gain in the opening 45 minutes. Getting to the interval at 0-0 was the aim.
The strategy paid off. There were no goals before half-time, but Arsenal scored twice in the second period – including a stoppage-time winner from Michael Thomas – to take the title from under the nose of their opponents. Graham, a manager who was known throughout his career for his defensive tendencies, was vindicated.
Luis Enrique may take a leaf out of Scot’s book on Tuesday. There is no need for Spain to throw everything at Portugal in the first 45 minutes, not least because they are not exactly a free-scoring side anyway. A 1-0 victory would be enough for Spain, so keeping a clean sheet would mean half the battle being won.
As for Fernando Santos, who is a tactically conservative manager in the mold of Graham, his main objective will be to hold Spain at arm’s length. Needing only a draw can be a difficult balancing act at times, although Portugal clearly have the advantage in this case. Our top tip for Tuesday’s tussle in Braga is a tie at the midway point.
|Teams||Portugal vs Spain|
|Location||Estadio Municipal de Braga, Braga, Portugal|
|Time||Tuesday, 27 September 2022, 14.45 PM EST|
|How to watch||fuboTV|
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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