So, the World Cup is just days away now and with the global spectacular event almost upon us, let’s have a look at the teams, groups and what might happen in Russia.
Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Iran
On paper, this group should be easily predictable with Spain and Portugal cruising through.
Manager: Fernando Hierro
Captain: Sergio Ramos
World Ranking: 10
The 2010 champions have had not just their World crown took off of them, but their European crown as well. They will be eager to get both back starting this summer. They have an abundance of talent including the of the best goalkeepers in the world in David De Gea as well as David Silva, Andres Iniesta, Diego Costa, Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets. I expect them to ease through.
Spain will look to play their possession-based game, as they always have done since Euro 2008. Isco will be crucial to Spain, playing as an advanced midfielder or a winger, supporting the striker who is likely to be Costa, as Alvaro Morata didn’t make the final team. As with many of the bigger teams, they may struggle to break down teams who like to sit back and absorb pressure but with the quality inside the team, they can beat anyone on their day. The creativity and skill of the Spanish team is one of the best at the tournament.
Note – At the time of writing Julen Lopetegui was sacked as manager of Spain and Fernando Hierro appointed in his place.
Manager: Fernando Santos
Captain: Cristiano Ronaldo
World Ranking: 4
The team that took Spain’s European crown are gearing up for another shot at World Cup glory with their best effort being a semi-final. With star player Cristiano Ronaldo having picked up his form at club level and the emergence of a good core of young talent such as Andre Gomes, Goncalo Guedes and Raphael Guerreiro, they should progress with their Iberian neighbours.
Portugal are very strong defensively, as shown by several of their Euro 2016 wins, especially against Croatia and France where they were able to nullify the threat of the opposition.
Bernardo Silva and Ricardo Quaresma will need to be up to their best, getting forward to support the front two. These two will most likely be Ronaldo and AC Milan’s Andre Silva. The wingers are crucial for Portugal as their creativity comes from their, trying to create chances for the front two.
One weakness for Portugal is their lack of pace at the back. Jose Fonte, Pepe and Bruno Alves are all experienced but lack pace to keep up with faster strikers.
Manager: Hervé Renard
Captain: Medhi Benatia
World Ranking: 41
Morocco have qualified for the first time in 20 years. They have two very good players in the midfield in Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal and Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech who are key creators in the team. They have the experience of Mbark Boussoufa and captain Mehdi Benatia. Roman Saiss also had a great year in the Championship with Wolves. This could be a break out tournament for youngsters Sofyan Amrabat and Achraf Hakimi.
Morocco have a strong midfield with ex Aston Villa player Karim El Ahmadi protecting the defense whilst Boussoufa will be a key factor with his range of passing. Younes Belhanda will push up from midfield to support the front three. They will aim to play direct, down the middle or to the wings. They have a talented squad but with Spain and Portugal in their group, reaching the knockout stage may seem a stretch too far.
Manager: Carlos Queiroz
Captain: Masoud Sojaei
World Ranking: 37
Iran qualified top of their qualifying group with comfortable ease but they have not been able to transfer that success to the World Cup. They have been eliminated in the group stages in 1998, 2006 and 2014 and I can’t see anything different happening here. They have two goalscorers they can count on though, in Sardar Azmoun and Reza Ghoochannejhad as well as AZ regular Alireza Jahanbakhsh in midfield.
Jahanbakhsh plays on the wing for Iran and is the main creative outlet, looking to take on his man and supply for the striker. They are good defensively, helped by their slightly defensive set up. They will keep one midfielder sitting deep to protect the back four, the man to do this job being experienced midfielder Omid Ebrahimi. This might mean they have to sacrifice goalscoring, in order to stay in games. They only scored 10 goals in the final round of qualifying, compared to Group B winners Japan’s 17. This was also shown in a late friendly where they barely managed to defeat Lithuania 1-0. Their lack of goalscoring and the difficulty of the group will be the main reasons why they are unlikely to reach the round of 16 for the first time.
Spain and Portugal to progress
Spain 1-1 Portugal
Morocco 1-0 Iran
Portugal 2-0 Morocco
Iran 0-2 Spain
Spain 3-1 Morocco
Iran 1-2 Portugal
1. Spain 7 (+4)
2. Portugal 7 (+3)
3. Morocco 3 (-3)
4. Iran 0 (-4)