We’ll continue our group-by-group previews in the lead-up to this summer’s World Cup. Today’s edition focuses on Group B – featuring powerhouse nations in Spain and Portugal, and relative unknowns in Morocco and Iran. On the surface, that should and likely could produce some serious disparities in talent and some lopsided games – but let’s not forget that Morocco were undefeated in qualification, not allowing a single goal, while Iran was the top overall team in Asian qualifiers. This is a very intriguing group, and don’t be surprised to see some crazy results at Russia 2018. Read on below for detailed team capsules, and overall predictions for Group B at the World Cup.
*Odds posted are ‘To Win Group’
At first glance, -200 for Spain to win this group seems like a bit of a gift – and nothing I’ve looked at in my research leading up to the tournament can convince me otherwise. After a few dull years, a new wave of youth and creativity has entered the fold, still bolstered by crafty veterans of the old guard. This mix of old and new talent is usually the blend needed to succeed at these short tournaments and I think Spain has the right team composition as they enter Russia 2018.
The Spaniards had a dominant qualifying campaign and have looked very solid in their pre-tourney fixtures. Unlike other global powerhouses that are littered with stars at every position, Spain knows exactly what they want to do, how they want to play, and the players that will get them the desired results. After some lackluster showings at the 2014 World Cup and then again at the Euros in 2016, La Roja is ready to return to dominance in Russia.
They’ll employ an active 4-3-3, with Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos once again commanding the centre of defense. Both wingbacks – likely Dani Carvajal and Jordi Alba will be very engaged in the attack going forward, routinely putting pressure on opposing defenses. Manager Julian Lopetegui has this side playing a more direct style of football, and that resulted in the Spniards averaging over three goals per game in qualifying. Still, though, many critics of La Roja point to their lack of an outright striker option – and though Alvaro Morata was left out of the side, Diego Costa and Isco can both fill the void.
Somehow, some way – the Portuguese won Euro 2016, and they’ll use that experience to carry them forward at Russia 2018. They again enter a major international tournament with some serious question marks, and despite having one of the game’s best in Cristiano Ronaldo, it remains to be seen how they’ll effectively surround the talented talisman up front.
Back in 2014, the Portuguese flamed out in the group stage of the World Cup and given some of their recent results, there’s a chance of that happening once again in Russia. Despite some of their skill and talent in the side, manager Fernando Santos prefers to employ a gritty and defensive approach to his tactics. While that worked in most qualifying games, at the World Cup where most teams are solid, I see some cracks in their system. For starters, it looks as if they’ll again turn to Pepe, Bruno Alves, and Jose Fonte as defensive options. All of those players are in their mid-to-late thirties and are simply shells of their former selves. They struggle to play up-tempo football and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see that trio carded or make a pivotal error at a crucial point of this tournament.
Now don’t get me wrong, Portugal still has some talent at key positions – and likely have much more on paper than challengers in Morocco and Iran from Group B, but Santos’ system limits the offense. Ronaldo will again be asked to be a complete game-breaker on the attack, but he’s also the focal point of the opposition’s defensive strategy. With everything always going through Ronaldo, he may not have the supporting cast he possesses at Real Madrid to make a true difference. William Carvalho and Bernardo Silva are nice pieces, but starting their tournament against Spain should be a real eye-opener for them.
Little is known about the Moroccans, but I’m a huge fan. There aren’t many holes in their pre-tournament resume, breezing through African qualification without losing or even conceding a goal. And what’s shocking is that they don’t play supremely defensively either. They have a fair bit of skill and attacking quality, and aren’t afraid to use it and run at good teams. That’s especially important for Group B when they’ll go against some well-known powerhouses in Spain and Portugal. Morocco will not be intimidated and could snatch up a second qualifying spot beyond the group stage.
Juventus’ Mehdi Benatia is a rock in the middle of Morocco’s back four and will need to continue to be solid against the likes of David Silva of Spain and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal. And while it’s becoming quite trendy to pick Benatia and his side to sneak through and advance, it isn’t without merit.
The Moroccans aren’t overly defensive or cautious. They can play any style of game – defending well, and having enough quality going forward to wreak havoc on opposing backlines. Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech is a creative force with freedom to roam all over the pitch. He will control the midfield for the Atlas Lions, routinely providing good service to their outright striker in Khalid Boutaib. Manager Herve Renard has his side raring to go and coming off an African title, his side is ready to turn heads at Russia 2018.
There really isn’t a very weak side in this whole group, and though the Iranians enter as the likely last-place finisher, Carlos Queiroz’s team was the best side from Asian World Cup qualifying. They have a lot of intriguing talent, and though it might be a little too much for them at this stage of their development – the experience will be good going forward.
Manager Queiroz employs a very rigid, defense-first system. They will likely use a familiar 4-5-1 formation and ensure all players are behind the ball when they don’t have it – which will be a ton in this tournament. They are very much your typical counter-attacking side, and while they did defend well in qualifying, playing the likes of Spain, Portugal and Morocco is quite the step-up in terms of class and flair. And though they do have some talent that can hurt defenses, such as Sardar Azmoun and Alireza Jahanbakhsh, it remains to be seen if they can break through on the world stage.
While it might be intriguing to see Team Melli hold off the heralded Spanish attack for 45 to 60 minutes or so, I wouldn’t count on it. They enter a defensively-oriented side, that doesn’t have the personnel to consistently repel attacking threats from world-class soccer nations. While their aim will be to frustrate opposing stars, it looks like the Iranians will leave Russia 2018 the most frustrated for being drawn into such a challenging group.