Portugal players stretch during an official training session at the Rubin Training Ground in Kazan, Russia, on Friday, June 16, 2017. Portugal will play Mexico in the Confederations Cup, Group A soccer match scheduled for Sunday, June 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
TALES AZZONI, AP Sports Writer
KAZAN, Russia (AP) — Two of the top contenders for the Confederations Cup title are meeting early in the tournament, with Portugal and Mexico making their Group A debut on Sunday in Kazan.
It will be European champion Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo in top form, taking on Gold Cup winner Mexico in a game that is likely to decide the group winner.
Ronaldo was making the headlines on Friday because of a report that said he wants to leave Real Madrid and Spain following allegations that he defrauded the country’s tax authorities.
The Portuguese sports daily A Bola published a front-page story Friday saying that Ronaldo was upset with the accusations made against him and that his decision was “irreversible.”
“It’s a high-profile match,” Mexico forward Hirving Lozano said. “It’s good that we get to play it right now, in our first game. Both teams have great players, it will be a tough match.”
Germany is the top-ranked team in the eight-nation Confederations Cup, at No. 3, but it came to Russia with a second-string squad that has only three players from the team that won the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Chile is ranked fourth, but lacks the same tradition as Portugal and Mexico and has struggled in South American qualifying.
Host Russia, ranked 63rd in the world, opens Group A play on Saturday against New Zealand in St. Petersburg. Group B has Germany, Chile, Australia and Cameroon.
The Confederations Cup is the main warm-up event for the 2018 World Cup. It is played by the continental champions plus the host nation and the World Cup winner.
Here are other things to watch when Portugal faces Mexico:
Ronaldo was peaking when he ended his season with Real Madrid, and now is looking to continue his good form with the national team in Russia.
“Ronaldo is motivated,” young Portugal forward Andre Silva said. “He is taking this competition very seriously and is fully focused on training and on the match against Mexico.”
Ronaldo has scored 18 goals in his last 11 matches, including two in Portugal’s 3-0 win at Latvia in a European World Cup qualifier last week, the team’s last match before the Confederations Cup opener against Mexico.
Two weeks ago, he had also scored twice in the Champions League final to lead Madrid to its second consecutive title in the European club competition.
Ronaldo has scored 11 goals in five games with Portugal this season.
A good performance at the Confederations Cup will virtually secure him a fifth world player of the year award, equaling Lionel Messi.
Portugal has won six of its last seven games, with the only setback coming in a 3-2 loss against Sweden in a friendly in March. With a team well balanced by coach Fernando Santos, Portugal outscored opponents 28-4 during that streak, with five clean sheets.
Mexico has won five of its last six matches, with a 2-1 home loss to Croatia in a friendly in May.
Portugal is making its debut in the Confederations Cup, while Mexico is playing in the intercontinental competition for the seventh time. The Mexicans won the title in 1999.
Portugal won 2-1 the only time it faced Mexico in an official match, in the group stage of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The teams drew 0-0 in a friendly in 1969, and in 2014 Portugal won 1-0 in another exhibition match.
Mexico’s squad has three players who have close connections to Portugal.
Defender Miguel Layun and midfielder Hector Herrera play for FC Porto, while forward Raul Jimenez plays for Benfica.
Portugal doesn’t have any player on its squad playing for Mexican clubs. Ten of its players are with Portuguese teams.
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni
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