There is a surprisingly local feel to Group B of the 2018 World Cup, with neighbours Portugal and Spain at the top of the bill. Indeed, with only the Strait of Gibraltar separating Spain from Morocco, the group’s third seeds, fans could be forgiven for wondering why they have to travel all the way to Russia to witness the clashes!
Iran will be hoping to gatecrash the Mediterranean party and are managed by Carlos Queiroz, who is, wait for it…Portuguese. There shouldn’t be many secrets in Group B! Who will make it into the last 16?
Following their surprise victory at the 2016 European Championships Portugal are ranked third in the FIFA World Rankings. Their coach Fernando Santos does not, however, believe that his team are among the favourites for the tournament, citing Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany and France as more likely winners.
It may well be that Santos is seeking to replicate the same under the radar approach that served Portugal so well in the Euros, where they struggled through their group with three draws and, remarkably, only won one match in the tournament in regulation time: a 2-0 semi-final victory over Wales.
Portugal’s 2016 triumph was built on a solid defence, endurance and the ability to find an edge when they needed it, often in extra time. With 2016 likely to be Cristiano Ronaldo’s last World Cup, Portugal possess one of the two players in world football most able to make the difference and the Real Madrid star will be desperate to leave a lasting impression on football’s biggest competition.
Portugal should make it through the group and, having proved at the Euros that they can navigate the tight, tense matches of knock-out tournament football, have earned the right to be considered potential World Cup winners.
Those eager to write the obituary for tiki-taka football will get little help from Julen Lopetegui’s Spain. Many of the players who excelled for Spain in the golden period from 2008-2012 when they claimed two European Championships and the World Cup in South Africa are still around and as committed as ever to the short passing game their nation has taken to new heights.
Pick a midfield from Busquets, Fabregas, Iniesta, David Silva and Real Madrid’s Isco. Pick your full-backs from Hector Bellerin, Dani Carvajal, Jordi Alba and Cesar Azpilicueta. Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos may have an ongoing Twitter feud but is there a stronger centre back pairing at international level? Meanwhile, up front Lopetegui looks likely to ask Chelsea’s Alvaro Morato to add the muscle, strength and directness that was perhaps the only thing missing during Spain’s trophy-laden years.
Spain have world-class players, enough depth to field perhaps a dozen high-class first XIs and the know-how of having been there and done it. Their performance has dipped in recent tournaments but class is permanent. Spain will take some stopping in Russia.
Morocco haven’t appeared at a World Cup since France 98, where Mustapha Hadji made a name for himself with sublime moments of skill and the team narrowly missed out on qualification for the last 16. Hadji is now assistant coach to national team manager Hervé Renard and will be hoping he can inspire the current generation of Moroccan players to go one step further.
The Moroccans didn’t concede a single goal in qualifying and with pedigree players like Juventus’s Mehdi Benatia in the back four should pose a stern test for the vaunted attacks of Spain and Portugal. Going forward the Moroccan’s boast some class of their own.
Hakim Ziyech starred in the Dutch league for Heerenveen, FC Twente and now Ajax and is a dead ball specialist, while Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal boasts the pace and trickery to unsettle any defence on his day (albeit he hasn’t had too many days since moving to the Premier League). Morocco are third seeds in the group and seem the most likely to frighten one of the big two and push for qualification.
Carlos Queiroz, the long term assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United (and short term manager at Real Madrid from 2003-2004) guided Iran to their second World Cup under his tenure – an impressive achievement given that the Iranians had never previously qualified for successive World Cups. Iran proved tough to be beat in Brazil 2014, drawing their first game 0-0 and almost holding Argentina to the same score before a late intervention from Messi.
Reza Ghoochannejhad’s strike against Bosnia and Herzegovina was, however, Iran’s only goal of the tournament. The profile of Queiroz’s team hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. They are still known for sitting back, defending in numbers and trying to hurt teams on the counter-attack – an approach they seem unlikely to change given the calibre of their Group B opponents.
It seems unlikely that Iran will emerge from such a strong group solely by applying these tactics, but they may well frustrate some of their higher ranked opponents.
Portugal v Spain (Friday June 15th) is a blockbuster start to the group with sub-plots aplenty. Can Ronaldo outwit his Real Madrid teammates and Barcelona rivals and get on the score sheet?
Can the Portuguese step out of the shadow of their bigger neighbours and prove that they’re worthy of their higher ranking? The points will be most important of all. Losing the first match in a four-team group puts the pressure on straight away.
Spain v Morocco (Monday June 25th) on the final day of the group looks the most likely to be a deciding match. If the Spanish stumble in one of the first two games Morocco may have the chance to pull off a dramatic upset.
On the other hand, if the Spanish are through and the Portuguese are struggling will La Roja be tempted to ease off and open the door for their Moroccan counterparts?
It’s hard to see past Portugal and Spain for the qualification places. Morocco and Iran are well versed in the art of defending, but frustrating the big two is unlikely to be enough in itself; the underdogs will need to find a way to add some bite to their attacks and the Portuguese and Spanish should have enough know-how to see off their lower ranked opponents.