SOCHI (Reuters) - Spain’s strong show of unity after the sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui was almost enough to secure victory in their World Cup opener against Portugal on Friday, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s late goal took some gloss off a superb performance.
With new manager Fernando Hierro urging them on from the sidelines, Spain bounced back from conceding an early penalty to lead 3-2 before Ronaldo’s stunning free kick claimed a point for Portugal in an enthralling match.
“We’ve all had to adapt very quickly to the new circumstances, we’ve had very little time before our opening match, so I really wish to express my heartfelt thanks for their commitment,” Hierro told reporters.
“It wasn’t an easy situation, but when you have this extremely good group of young players, and the staff, these excellent professionals, they make your life a lot easier,” he said.
With Lopetegui sacked for signing a deal with Real Madrid without informing the Spanish FA, the 50-year-old former Spain captain was pushed into the spotlight as coach two days before they played their toughest Group B opponents.
“This is a matter that has to do with the team, a collective approach, but it’s wonderful to have so many committed people who really want to help you, so I do feel that I’m extremely privileged,” Hierro said.
Hierro, who had been working as sporting director for the Spanish FA, and his team stuck to Lopetegui’s game plan and they executed it almost to perfection until they were undone by Ronaldo’s strike.
The coach declined to criticise goalkeeper David De Gea, who allowed a shot from Ronaldo to squirm through his grasp to make it 2-2 just before halftime.
“We’re not going to point the finger of blame at anyone. Of course there are moments when things don’t go as well but we know what we want, and what we are asking our players and everyone is to see us as a team,” Hierro said.
With Iran, who beat Morocco 1-0 with a late goal earlier on Friday, up next, Hierro said his team would be focussing on staying in Russia as long as possible.
“Every single player is extremely important, from number one to number 23, in training sessions, matches, the day after the matches. We are all members of the same family,” he said.
Reporting by Philip O'Connor, editing by Ed Osmond