SOCHI, June 14 (Xinhua) -- When the draw for the group stage of the World Cup was made, the match between Spain and Portugal on the borders of the Black Sea looked as if it would decide which of the two sides would finish top of Group G.
24 hours before kick-off it has taken on a whole new significance. Real Madrid announced that the Spanish national side coach Julen Lopetegui would take over at the Santiago Bernabeu in July.
The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) wasted no time and in a twice-delayed press conference on Wednesday, RFEF President Luis Rubiales, who was only elected to the post at the end of April, announced that Lopetegui had been sacked by Spain. The sacking comes amid rumors that some members of the Spain squad had asked for him to be kept on until the end of the competition.
Two hours later, Fernando Hierro, RFEF director of sport was named as his replacement. Hierro was a great player for Real Madrid and Spain in his day, but has only one season's worth of experience as the first team coach of second division Oviedo.
With less than 48 hours before Spain kick off their World Cup campaign, it is hard to imagine what changes Hierro can make to the tactics Lopetegui had been using in preparation for Russia.
David de Gea is certain to start in goal, while in defense, Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos are fixtures, with the only doubt being whether the more attack minded Alvaro Odriozola or the adaptable and ever-reliable Nacho Fernandez is given the task of playing at right back where they will have to defend against Cristiano Ronaldo.
Spain's last preparation game, a 1-0 win at home to Tunisia on June 9 left some doubts in midfield with Koke and Thiago Alcantara expected to battle it out for a place alongside Sergio Busquets, David Silva, Andres Iniesta and possibly Isco.
That started the debate over whether Lopetegui would pick Diego Costa as a central striker or use the pace and mobility of Iago Aspas and Rodrigo Moreno against a solid, organized, but aging Portugal defense.
Hierro is bound to have his own ideas on this, but with such short notice he probably won't have time to implement them and he will have to go with whatever Lopetegui had planned. Spain's lack of punch in the first half against Tunisia implies he will probably go with Koke in midfield and perhaps with Costa and Aspas in attack and Isco starting on the bench.
Predicting the Spain starting 11 was a guessing game before Lopetegui was sacked. Hierro's job now is working on the morale and unity of a squad that must be in shock after seeing the man who led them undefeated for the past two years shown the door on the eve of the most important football tournament in the world. Spain clearly have the talent to go a long way in Russia, perhaps even to win the World Cup, but after an incredible 48 hours, merely kicking off with a win in Sochi would be a major achievement.