Spain's tumultuous week ends with 3-3 draw against Portugal
SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Spain was on the cusp of a perfect ending following days of turmoil, minutes from a spectacular triumph over Iberian rival Portugal to start its World Cup.
But Fernando Hierro, the former Spain defender who only took over as coach two days earlier, had to settle for a draw because Cristiano Ronaldo made sure the 2010 World Cup champions would only get one point following a 3-3 draw Friday in Group B.
Spain controlled possession and played well enough to win, but failed to stop Ronaldo. The Real Madrid forward turned the match into a personal showcase at the expense of the Spanish team and goalkeeper David de Gea.
It was De Gea's gaffe late in the first half on Ronaldo's shot from the top of the penalty area that gave Portugal a 2-1 halftime lead. And De Gea was left frozen watching Ronaldo's free kick in the closing minutes dip under the crossbar to cap his hat trick and ensure the draw.
Still, after the coaching chaos of the week, Hierro was willing to accept the draw.
"We feel very proud of the players after the adversity of the match itself. We came back and equalized twice, so we feel great commitment, pride," Hierro said. "This is a mature squad. The team knows what it wants, it has been playing together for two years and they know what they want. That style, that personality, it's a question of personality, character and pride."
Hierro never expected to be in the position of leading Spain in the World Cup. But his services were called upon only two days before the match when the Spanish federation fired Julen Lopetegui after he accepted a position with Real Madrid. Lopetegui was to take over at the Bernabeu after the World Cup, only to get sent home before the tournament even started.
Hierro had so little time to get settled he kept the same game plan Lopetegui had in place for the opener.
"Many of the staff have stayed with us and there was a plan in place and we stuck to that," Hierro said. "We didn't really want to tweak and touch anything. We've been very normal and natural. We've all had to adapt very quickly to the new circumstances. We had very little time. This situation wasn't easy, quite frankly."
After an unsettling few days, Spain finally got a chance to let the product on the field be the focus of attention, not who was sitting in the coach's chair. But the chaos followed Spain at the start, with Nacho Fernandez fouling Ronaldo in the penalty area in the opening moments of the match and Spain falling behind 1-0 inside the first five minutes.
The response that followed was what impressed Hierro. Diego Costa scored the first of his two goals with an impressive individual effort, shaking off several defenders with multiple cut backs before finally getting off a right-footed shot that beat Rui Patricio.
De Gea's blunder just before halftime on a shot that should have been saved gave Portugal the lead at the break, but Spain put itself in a position for victory with Costa's second goal in the 55th minute and Fernandez atoning for the penalty with a half-volley from 20 yards three minutes later.
Spain is still expected to advance to the knockout round, but a victory could have completely put to rest the decision to fire Lopetegui.
"I'm going to think about that responsibility that I had," Hierro said. "It wasn't an easy situation but when you have these extremely good group of young players, and the staff, these excellent professionals they make your life a lot easier."