The next port of call in our World Cup preview looks at Group B, featuring Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Iran.
The resurgent Spanish come up against surprise Euro 2016 winners Portugal in their bid to put the nightmare of 2014 behind them, while Fernando Santos’ men will be determined to prove that their victory in France two years ago was not a once-off. Throw in a technically gifted Morocco and attack-minded Iran and one has the makings of a very interesting group.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 10th
Best World Cup Finish: Winners (2010)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Group Stage
One to Watch – Isco: Now is his time to shine. Isco has been making steady progress for both club and country in the past couple of years, and is now a key player for both Spain and Real Madrid – hammered home with a hat-trick during the 6-1 thrashing of Argentina last season.
Granted, La Roja aren’t exactly short of creative talent – but with Iniesta on the way out after this tournament, now is the time for Isco, blessed with an abundance of technical ability, to take the mantle as Spain’s playmaker-in-chief.
Verdict: The misery of Brazil 2014 is firmly behind them, and Spain feel ready to dominate again. The end of that cycle has given way to a new one – new creative forces and new forwards (but with the same strong defence).
Of course, right now nobody knows how they will operate as they have taken the breathtaking step of sacking manager Julen Lopetegui before a ball has even been kicked. It had been confirmed 24 hours earlier that Lopetegui would be leaving to take the Real Madrid job, setting the wheels in motion for a run of events that now has Fernando Hierro in the dugout for the tournament.
That said, there is no denying that Spain have one of the strongest squads in the whole competition. They are a brilliant, vibrant force again and will still probably still navigate the group easily enough – but who knows to what degree the managerial change will disrupt their campaign?
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 4th
Best World Cup Finish: 3rd Place (1966)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Group Stage
One to Watch – Gelson Martins: Reportedly targeted as a Mo Salah alternative for Liverpool year, rumoured to be attracting the interest of Arsenal, Everton and Man United (because of course) this summer, Gelson Martins could be more of a household name in England after this summer.
The Sporting winger is a wide man in the classical sense, marauding down the right, beating a man and putting a cross in. At the age of 23, Martins still has years ahead of him to fully realise his potential. Will first have to usurp Bernardo Silva or Joao Mario in the side, but Martins can become a key performer in Russi given the opportunity.
Verdict: On paper, Fernando Santos’ side should be happy with the draw (Spain aside). The reigning European champions should have too much for Iran, but the other two matches will be interesting. Getting their Iberian neighbours out of the way first might in one sense be beneficial for them, but defeat in that game would also put them under serious pressure to get a favourable result against Morocco. A second defeat, a distinct possibility, would all but eliminate them.
Cristiano Ronaldo can always be relied upon to deliver, but he can’t do it alone. More pressure than ever before will be on the likes of Bernardo Silva, Joao Moutinho, William Carvalho and the aforementioned Martins to carry some of that creative burden. The defence, meanwhile, is looking very out of sorts lately with the likes of Bruno Alves and Jose Fonte badly off-form. This could be a struggle for them.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 41st
Best World Cup Finish: Round of 16 (1986)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Did Not Qualify
One to Watch – Hakim Ziyech: There is an ocean of hype surrounding Ziyech, and it’s easy to see why. The 25-year-old is one of the most gifted playmakers in Europe, standing out as one of the best players in the Eredivisie with Ajax last season with tremendous creative talents available to him. Having switched international allegiance from the Netherlands in 2015, Ziyech has not looked back and if Morocco qualify for the knockout stages, Ziyech will almost certainly have played a huge part in that.
However, with such talent comes volatility. His relationship with Morocco manager Herve Renard could best be described as “volatile,” with events coming to a head last year when Ziyech swore he’d never play for the national team while the Frenchman was still the manager. The two have since formed an uneasy truce, but whether that alliance can hold (or not) will have massive ramifications for the whole campaign.
Verdict: Morocco should be reasonably confident about progression to the last 16, even if the odds say differently. Portugal can be caught, and if Morocco get a positive result against the Euro 2016 winners and Iran, and if they face an already-qualified Spain in their final match, then that confidence will soar. It will take a certain chain of events for that to occur, but it’s within the realms of possibility. The opener against Iran will be key.
In terms of their squad, they have a talented creative midfield with Ziyech, Nordin Amrabat and Younes Belhanda pulling the strings in midfield and Juventus defender Medhi Benatia organising the defence. That said, their goalkeeper Munir Mohamedi has barely played for club Numancia while the forward options look a little inexperienced.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 37th
Best World Cup Finish: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2006, 2014)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Group Stage
One to Watch – Alireza Jahanbakhsh: In a similar vein to Hakim Ziyech above, Jahanbaksh is a technically gifted young player plying his trade in the Eredivisie. The 24-year-old AZ Alkmaar attacker is capable of playing anywhere across the forward line, and with 21 goals and 12 assists to his name last season, Jahanbakhsh is coming into this tournament in a prolific run of form.
Verdict: If Iran’s defence could match their attack, then they would stand a much better chance of emerging from this group. Their forwards, including the aforementioned Jahanbakhsh and Sardar Azmoun, are bang in form but the central defence is a major concern for manager Carlos Queiroz.
They will score goals, but coming up against such strong opposition, they will concede more. Ultimately, that will be their undoing and another group stage exit awaits.
Prediction: On the face of it, Spain and Portugal should consider themselves the favourites to progress from this group. Certainly Spain, as one of the favourites to win the entire tournament, should have no trouble reaching the last 16, while Iran are too limited to cause much trouble overall.
The runner-up battle, though, will be an interesting one. Portugal are notoriously slow starters in group stages and, in facing Spain first, could be playing catch-up before they face Morocco when they face each other (assuming, of course, that Morocco overcome Iran). There is a sense that the African side can cause an upset here, and it wouldn’t be a huge shock to see Portugal going home early.