On Prado beach in Marseilles, the favourites have so far been living up to their billing. On the first day of the 2006 European League Superfinal, Portugal and Spain succeeded in imposing themselves on their group rivals, closing in on a berth at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Rio de Janeiro in the process.
Predictably, it has been the two sides' star players who have made the difference in these very tight encounters. A case in point was the Italy-Portugal game, which needed penalties to decide the winner. While the Azzurri's Pasquali missed his spot-kick, Madjer kept his nerve to give the Iberians their first three points.
Earlier, the two sides had launched the tournament with a match of great beauty, trading goals until the tally stood at 6 apiece. Portugal's Alan and Italy's Carotenuto both bagged hat-tricks, while Madjer and Pasquali netted braces. Presumably, the match will have served as a warning to group rivals and reigning world champions France, who will find out for themselves just how good the Portuguese are when the teams meet this afternoon.
In the day's other game, the Spaniard Amarelle once again treated the Marseilles public to the full gamut of his considerable talents. But as is their wont, Ukraine fought on doggedly and kept the Spanish on their toes till the very end.
Spain on song
Given a flying start by a pair of early goals from Nico and Amarelle, Spain had hoped to retain their advantage. However, after establishing a 4-2 lead during the middle third, Joaquín Alonso's men found themselves pegged back to 4-4 just minutes later. Roberto, the Spanish keeper, then came to his side's rescue, leaving his team-mate Nico to fire his side to victory (5-4) with a goal from midfield right at the death.
After this first day, the likely qualifiers for Rio de Janeiro 2006 are beginning to emerge. Having made their return to the sands of the Mediterranean late on Tuesday, Portugal and Spain will be able to start packing their bags for Rio if they win today against France and Poland respectively. However, with both the world champions and the Poles desperate to go through to the finals in South America, victory will be far from a formality. One thing is for sure though: the fans should be in for some fantastic entertainment.
Portugal 6 Italy 6 (1:0 on pens.)
Spain 5 Ukraine 4
1 - Portugal, 3 points (1 match)
2 - France, 0 point (0 match)
3 - Italy, 0 point (1 match)
1 - Spain, 3 points (1 match)
2 - Poland, 0 point (0 match)
3 - Ukraine, 0 point (1 match)
Wednesday, August 23
Ukraine - Poland
Italy - France
Thursday, August 24
Portugal - France
Spain - Poland