Ronaldo lauds Portugal spirit ahead of battle with Spain

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The Independent Football

Portugal fans heaved a collective sigh of relief following the hosts' victory over Russia on Wednesday, but they know there is far more nerve-jangling agony to come.

Goals from Maniche Ribeiro and Rui Costa at the Estadio da Luz were enough to re-ignite the challenge for Euro 2004 glory while their opponents slipped into a more advance stage of self-destruction.

However, all those three precious points mean is that Sunday's final Group A meeting with arch-rivals Spain is one in which the stakes could hardly be higher.

Local pride would be enough of a prize for both sides but this time there is the added dimension of the knowledge that anything less than victory for Luiz Felipe Scolari's side will mean the ignominy of elimination from the tournament before the serious business has begun.

Portugal, as a nation, has invested a huge amount of time and money in staging Euro 2004. They have invested just as much, if not more, hope in the belief that after years of under-achievement this really could be their year.

In the space of 90 minutes at the Jose Alvalade Stadium in Lisbon on Sunday evening, that cauldron of hope and emotion will come to the boil.

Win and the the path to the big prize opens up before them with the added bonus of a rare chance to crow over their nearest neighbours. Draw and it will be a case of what might have been with Greece the villains of the piece. Lose and they will be remembered as the team which consigned the famed golden generation to history and failed to shake off the tag of perennial nearly-men.

Scolari and his players have been under the spotlight for months but no more so than during the days leading up to the Russia game with the coach's selection and tactics, the rumbling row over Brazilian-born Deco's inclusion and the form of some of the big-name players in the squad, all topics for debate.

However, teenager Cristiano Ronaldo, the man who made the second goal for Rui Costa on Wednesday night, insists that there is a unity within the camp.

"We're very united and have a great spirit and happiness between us," he said. "I'm very happy and the most important thing now is to beat Spain."

Ronaldo replaced the Portugal captain Luis Figo with 12 minutes of the Russia game remaining and the Real Madrid player was less than effusive as he left the stadium.

Scolari's decision to make four changes to the side which lost 2-1 to Greece - Rui Costa, Fernando Couto, Paulo Ferreira and Rui Jorge were all left out - raised eyebrows but his justification came via a better performance and result.

Deco, one of the beneficiaries, admitted he was delighted to get his chance, but insisted that there had been nothing radical about the shuffling of personnel.

"The coach made changes - that's his job and players have to accept it," he said. "He didn't change the tactics, but he did change the attitude.

"The players who didn't play are important members of the squad and they deserve total respect. Players like Fernando and Rui Costa, they have given a lot to Portugal."

Spain's Joseba Etxeberria will almost certainly miss the match against Portugal through injury, his coach, Inaki Saez, said yesterday.

Spain will also be without their centre back Carlos Marchena after he picked up a second yellow card in the 1-1 draw with Greece on Wednesday and right winger Etxeberria is all but ruled out with a thigh muscle injury.

"In a game as important as this I don't think Etxeberria is going to make it," Saez said.

Full-backs Carles Puyol and Raul Bravo suffered minor injuries in the game against Greece but Spain's doctor, Genaro Borras, said both should be fit for Sunday's match against Portugal.

"The Etxeberria injury is the only one I'm really worried about," Borras said. "The area is inflamed and at the very least, he's a serious doubt for the game."

Spain have a natural substitute for Etxeberria in Joaquin, who troubled the Greek defence throughout the second half after coming on as substitute. Cesar is likely to come in for Marchena in the centre of defence.