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MORESPORTS

Spain gets stern test against Portugal and Ronaldo

Soccer's Iberian heavyweights get their first look at each other as World Cup opponents on Tuesday.

In a match better suited for the later rounds of the tournament, European champion Spain (ranked No. 2) and third-ranked Portugal face off in Cape Town (2:30 p.m. EDT). Spain has won 15 of their 32 meetings, with Portugal taking five.

The countries are rich in cultural and sporting similarities. They share a border over 750 miles long, a history of overcoming fascism, and a passion for soccer defined by creativity and individual skill.

Obviously, this is the biggest sporting matchup the neighboring nations have had.

"It's all for the winner and nothing for the loser now," Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz said. "We are motivated and prepared to leave it all on the field."

The match promises to be a tense struggle among players who know each other well. Seven of the Portuguese play in Spain's La Liga, including captain Cristiano Ronaldo. And there are 14 holdovers from both squads that met six years ago in their last major game — a 1-0 win for Portugal that knocked Spain out of the 2004 European Championship.

Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said his team needs to improve after failing to impress in its first three matches, which included a 1-0 loss to the Swiss.

"We've already suffered quite a bit," he said. "They've been hard days and they've strengthened us."

And also weakened them. Xabi Alonso has a right ankle sprain, although he did practice Monday.

The Spaniards would also like to see star striker Fernando Torres find the net. He has been particularly wasteful in the group matches after recovering from right knee surgery.

"The most important thing is that he's played three games and he's better," Del Bosque said. "Though he hasn't brought goals, he's a player who has helped us because he draws the defense, as he's such a threat to our opponents. With space, he's always a dangerous player."

So is Ronaldo, who broke a two-year scoring drought for the national team when he got a goal against North Korea.

"We're playing Cristiano, but also a great team, a generation of players that has played together for years, and one of the strongest rivals at this World Cup," del Bosque said. "I don't think we should worry so much over the individuals. They play like a true team. They defend well. They're well organized, are strong on the counterattack. They get out quickly."

The Portuguese also were annoyed that Spanish players expressed relief about not meeting Brazil in the second round.

"We want to go out there and cause Spain at least as many difficulties as the Brazilians would have done," Portugal winger Simao Sabrosa said. "Maybe even more."

Paraguay and Japan meet in the other group of 16 match (10 a.m. EDT at Pretoria). Both teams are relative surprises to have gotten this far — indeed, Paraguay won Group F after Italy's collapse.

The Paraguayans have been emblematic of the opportunistic performances by South America at this tournament. In the opening round, only Chile lost a match of teams from that continent, and all five of those nations advanced.

The Japanese, runners-up to the Netherlands in Group E, have shown more offensive creativity than in previous tournaments.

"Fundamentally they are a team who get back into their defensive positions very well, using a back-line of four and practically five midfielders, with (Keisuke) Honda generally up front," Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino said. "When they get the ball they come out very quickly on the counterattack; this is what we have to be careful of most, the fast breaks.

"When they find space they get men forward into attack and this is the most important issue to be careful about."

Neither Paraguay nor Japan has ever been beyond the second round of a World Cup.