x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Favourites Spain are raring to go

Spain will be expected to win against a Swiss team placed 22 spots below their No 2 position in the Fifa world rankings, but Ramos is not underestimating the side.

Fernando Torres wins an aerial challenge during a Spanish training session as the team prepare for their opening game of the World Cup against Switzerland today.
Fernando Torres wins an aerial challenge during a Spanish training session as the team prepare for their opening game of the World Cup against Switzerland today.

The waiting is over for Spain, the World Cup favourites who play their opening Group H game against Switzerland in Durban today. More than 5,000 La Roja fans and around 3,000 Swiss have travelled to South Africa's third biggest city and the continent's largest port for the game, to be played under the striking giant arch of the new 70,000 capacity Moses Mabhida Stadium.

Durban is a rugby city, but the sports-mad public were not slow to snap up tickets to see the reigning European champions, the last of the 32 competing teams to arrive in South Africa. "After a long period in Spain and here in South Africa, we're keen to play and we want to show what we've been doing for a long time," Sergio Ramos, the Spain and Real Madrid defender, said. Spain will be expected to win against a Swiss team placed 22 spots below their No 2 position in the Fifa world rankings, but Ramos is not underestimating the side who boast and an excellent recent pedigree in world football having qualified for the last four major tournaments.

"It will be a very tough game and we will try to cause them problems with our attacking play," he said. "It's the fans, the press and the other teams who have put us down as favourites, but we are keeping our feet on the ground, as we have been doing. "We're going to respect everyone the same. It would be a mistake to think we are the favourites. We are in the first phase and we have important games ahead of us."

Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas is available for selection after overcoming an injury ahead of schedule. The Barcelona transfer target stressed the importance of victory in Spain's opening game, saying: "It's very important to win your first game, especially for the team's confidence. "That said, sometimes the champions are a team which starts slowly, which is hard to understand because winning your opening game is vital for squad morale.

"A win boosts the mood in the camp, makes you feel more relaxed and eases the pressure. A defeat makes the going even harder, creates more stress and isn't good for the squad." Fabregas could line up against his former Arsenal teammate Philippe Senderos, the Swiss centre-back. "He was like an older brother to me when I arrived in London," the Arsenal captain told reporters. "We've virtually grown up together, we lived together for nearly three years and he helped me a lot. Without his help I don't know if I'd have settled so quickly."

Fabregas is competing with Andres Iniesta for a place in the side. Iniesta is another recently injured player who has come through to join his teammates for full training in recent days. Iniesta's Barca teammate Sergio Busquets is expected to start the match, and anticipates some nerves. "Until now, I've only seen games on TV, but I guess it'll be just like any other important game," Busquets told reporters. "The bus ride from the hotel to the stadium, for sure I'm going to feel butterflies in my stomach."

The 21-year-old Busquets is expected to fill the role of Marcos Senna, a key member of Spain's European Championship winning team in 2008. Senna was troubled by injuries this season. "I bring something different from Marcos Senna, but the most important thing is that I complement the team," Busquets said. Spain qualified with an unprecedented 100 per cent record of 10 wins, but Switzerland reached their second consecutive World Cup by losing just one of their 10 games to top their group - a shock home defeat to Luxembourg.

They will be missing Alexander Frei, their injured captain and all-time top scorer with 40 goals, as well as Valon Behrami, the energetic West Ham midfielder, though both are expected back for what is likely to be a key second game against Chile. Ottmar Hitzfeld, the Swiss coach, remains confident. The German has the experience of winning the Champions League twice and can still select a strong side as Switzerland draw many of their players from Europe's top leagues.

"Everyone says Spain will win," said Hitzfeld, 61, "So this is where we might get our opportunity. Little Switzerland could annoy the favourites. We will give everything and try to create a surprise." sports@thenational.ae

Key battles ? Xavi v Tranquillo Barnetta Barnetta was one of two Swiss players to start every qualifying game. The 25-year-old has played for Bayer Leverkusen in Germany's Bundesliga since 2004 - the same year he made his Swiss debut as a 19-year-old. He is versatile but will start in as a defensive midfielder facing Xavi, the best in his position in the world. ? David Villa v Philippe Senderos Senderos, the giant Swiss defender, 25, has Premier League and Serie A experience. He will need it trying to tame Villa (pictured), the favourite for the tournament's golden boot, who has just signed for Barcelona from Valencia. Tactical analysis Both teams are likely to start with 4-4-2 formations, though Switzerland's central midfielders will play far deeper than Spain's. Spain will attempt to dominate possession and use their creative midfielders to open up the Swiss defence. Player to watch Tranquillo Barnetta Aside from the obvious Spain stars, the Swiss was shortlisted for the Best Young Player of the 2006 World Cup after scoring an excellent goal against Togo. Last meeting Spain beat Switzerland 3-0 in a friendly in Berne four years ago, and also won by the same scoreline in the second round of World Cup '94 in the United States. Did you know In 2006, Switzerland became the only team in World Cup history to be eliminated from the competition without conceding a goal, losing to Ukraine in a penalty shootout in the last 16, when they missed every penalty.