Reigning European champions, reigning African champions and Spain. Poor bloody Iran…
Who are they?
When Eder went from “ugly duckling” to “beautiful swan” in the European Championship final (his manager’s words, not ours), Portugal finally had an achievement to mark the succession of Golden Generations who had gone before. They had one brilliant player, a few very good ones, and a couple of Southampton defenders.
After years of artistry, Euro 2016 felt more like a triumph of organisation and hard work. Three successful periods of extra time in four knockout games were a testament to that fact. Two years later, and having qualified impressively (9 wins and 32 goals in 10 games), they come into this World Cup looking admirably efficient but we hope they’re also looking to bring a touch of style back to the work ethic. Brazil 2014 was a huge disappointment, and failure to qualify from the group stages unforgivable. Doing the same this time, as European champions, would be far worse
They’re not a one-man team by any stretch, but of course Portugal do have him up top. Besides #CR7 there’s real talent in this squad and the first XI – Andre and Bernardo Silva, Gelson Martins, the still reigning king of the trivela Ricardo Quaresma, Joao Moutinho, the gossip column’s William Carvalho – but a few need their form to match their reputation this summer. Defensively Portugal, are okay but their best players are ageing. They could bypass that by going out guns blazing; they just need to convince their manager to try.
The elephant in the room is the fact that the next golden generation have not kicked on from Euro 2016. Renato Sanches is the poster boy but there are others who were expected to play a big role in Russia who aren’t even going to be there. The old guard are still very good, but that’s handy because they will need to be.
Manager – Fernando Santos
The mastermind of that Euros triumph may fall into the exclusive group of coaches blessed to be able to pick one of the two best players in the world for all their games, but he’s not being carried by the human hashtag. Santos knows how to set his team out, all eleven of them. Portugal’s 4-4-2 will be tight on the back foot but hopefully more fluid on the front while still giving you-know-who the licence he needs to play around.
Having managed Sporting, Porto, and Benfic, Santos is well-liked rather than universally adored but he remains in a position of strength with a trophy in the cabinet to prove it. There are a few who think he needs to take the shackles off but you can’t knock the track record. He wants the bulk of his team to provide a platform for one or two others, and that’s exactly how he will play this World Cup. Knowing they have had some poor performances in friendlies and need to raise it significantly Santos will have a few worries, but once that opening derby is out of the way he should be able to relax into the last two games.
Key Man – Cristiano Ronaldo
Because he’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
(See also Egypt: Because he’s Mo Salah and Argentina: Because he’s Lionel Messi)
What should we expect?
A hop, skip, and a hopefully a more stylish jump through the group in second place and then it’s all about if they can up it a gear or three. They have a talisman but everyone else is going to have to chip in if they are to play in more than one knockout game.
Spain are looking very much like Spain again. Imperious in the last 12 months, they have played Italy and Argentina not just off the park but out of this galaxy, held Germany in a real ebb-and-flow friendly in Dusseldorf and scored 34 goals in 10 games along the way. The passing is back. The pressing is back. The sexy is back.
It never really went away, of course, just began to flicker a bit as a changing of the guard occurred in a few positions and new ideas were phased in. Manager Julen Lopetegui has shown himself to be flexible tactically and in terms of personnel, far more so than Del Bosque was and vital with such a deep pool to pick from. There are no real safe positions in the Spain squad or first XI (apart from David de Gea’s) and games have been raised accordingly.
They are definite contenders alongside Brazil, Germany and France to win the lot but the nagging doubt remains that this is still a side who might struggle if a team refuses to let them dominate the ball and has the quality to do so. They have magicians in the team but also need a few fighters – Sergios Ramos and Busquets can’t do it all on their own. Sooner or later Spain will play a team who will either press them to an uncomfortable degree or counter with quality and the ghosts of 2014 will need to be exorcised.
But for the majority of the time Spain will be on the ball and that’s still a joy to behold. If you don’t like watching the likes of Thiago, Isco, Koke, Saul Niguez, Marco Asensio, and David Silva play football it may not be the sport for you. On top of that ridiculous array of talent there’s also the small matter of Andrés Iniesta’s last World Cup to look forward to. Exciting individuals, a very stylish team, and points to prove after a disaster four years ago. They just might do it you know.
Manager – Julen Lopetegui
How do you replace Vicente del Bosque, the man who took Spain to their highest ever footballing peak? You get the man who had been doing great things with the Spanish youth teams before a brief sojourn to Porto. There was more than a whiff of succession planning about Lopetegui’s appointment and so far his openness to change and tinker has served Spain well. He has also been willing to bring Spanish football’s brightest and best straight through youth football into the first team. The Spanish Gareth Southgate!
If Spain do go deep it will be interesting to see if he can go toe to toe with Tite and Joachim Löw. Not afraid to make big decisions, as Alvaro Morata, Hector Bellerin, and Javi Martinez will all attest from their homes this summer, Loptegui knows a semi-final appearance is merely par for this group of players.
Key Man – David Silva
There are several key men in this squad. Captain Ramos needs to keep the harmony on both sides of the Clasico divide, Busquets is going to have to protect some of the more fragile members of the midfield, and the striking berth is relatively up for grabs so whoever gets a chance (possibly/probably Diego Costa from the off) has to grasp it and hit the ground sprinting.
In the midst of all that is a piece of red and yellow silk billowing in the breeze tasked with both scoring and creating for La Roja. David Silva actually plays in a far more direct role than he does with Manchester City but retains that lightness of touch and ability to drift effortlessly into space. An elder statesman of the Spanish squad now, enjoy him on the world stage while you still can.
What should we expect?
In short; big, sexy things.
For a team as good as Morocco getting drawn into Group B was a stinker. They may not be as fluid or as individually talented as others but they are a decent side that would beat many teams at this World Cup. Wisdom suggests second place is the only one available and Portugal are favourites to take that. Can Morocco upset the odds? Maybe, particularly if Portugal lose badly to Spain in their opening game and feel the pressure from the off.
Morocco’s strength lies in their defence and it will have to stand firm against both of the Iberian attacking lines. Captain Medhi Benatia is their standout central defender and player, Wolves fans will be very familiar with Romain Saiss’ work, and throughout the squad there is a fair sprinkling of talent for those of us familiar with the Europa League. Not outstanding, but certainly good enough to be here and better than many are giving them credit for.
Morocco’s problem is likely to be at the other end and no one can deny they’re missing a goal threat likely to frighten any team other than Iran. The three recognised strikers in the squad (Khalid Boutaïb, Aziz Bouhaddouz, and Ayoub El Kaabi) have a little over 30 caps and just the 11 goals between them. In qualifying as a whole they scored 11 goals in 6 games but it’s worth noting nine of those came in the home games against Mali and Gabon. Boutaïb or Bouhaddouz will be fighting to start if both fit, and a lot will rest on their shoulders in terms of attacking ambition.
Manager – Hervé Renard
Yes that Hervé Renard, he of heroics with Zambia and looking delicious in a crisp white shirt fame. Qualification was built on organisation and defence, Morocco didn’t concede a single goal in their group and Renard has history with pulling incredible performances from a group of players. It feels like a stretch to make a real case for them finishing above Portugal but if they do it will be in no small part down to their manager’s guile.
This is Morocco’s first World Cup since 1998 and Renard has become incredibly popular for the way he has changed their mindset. He’s recently signed a contract taking him through as manager to 2022 and if Morocco do get there a more favourable draw may give them a better chance to flourish.
Key Man – Medhi Benatia
Goals are going to be hard to come by for Morocco but if they are to have even a squeak of a knockout game then defensively they are going to have to be watertight. Benatia tends to lead by example in all areas of his life (he’s a lovely chap, word count forbids us explaining why but look it all up) and he certainly won’t feel overawed. After conceding the penalty in the Real Madrid v Juventus game that made Gigi Buffon as mad as ten bears he might feel he has a score to settle with one or two in the Spain side.
What should we expect?
Matchday two against Portugal is where they live or die in the group. They will be tough, rigid, and quick in both the tackle and the referee’s ear. Underestimate them at your peril.
Similarly to Morocco, Iran can look at the draw and believe that Lady Luck has done them no favours. An uphill task went to a mountainous one the minute the Iberian Derby appeared on the dance card of Group B. Iran won’t feel like they are here to make up the numbers, but the manner in which they qualified so impressively was a significant achievement. Anything else that comes along will be a massive bonus.
There’s no point trying to make a case here: They will likely finish bottom of this group. Still, they’re unlikely to be blown away even by Spain. Iran waltzed through qualification; a soft initial group was swept aside accordingly with only three goals conceded in eight games. The third-round group saw them against far tougher opposition – South Korea pushed them in particular – but there was a real sense of organisation and consistency. In 18 qualifying games Iran remained unbeaten, conceded only five goals and played some good football. Asia’s best qualifying team may find themselves in a horrible group to try and get out of, but they are definitely going to make it difficult for everyone else.
This progress is in part due to Iranian players willingness to move into European football and test themselves at higher levels. Of their four appearances at the World Cup, this will be the first squad to have over half its selected players signed to non-domestic clubs. Iran will pick from a pool now playing in (amongst others) England, Greece, Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Russia and Portugal. It’s worth keeping an eye on Alireza Jahanbakhsh (22 goals in 39 appearances for AZ this season), Karim Ansarifard (18 goals in 27 appearances for Olympiacos this season), and Reza Ghoochannejhad (10 goals in 36 appearances for Heerenveen) for further evidence of that growth.
Manager – Carlos Queiroz
A man who will be looking forward to the final group game against Portugal in particular. Quieroz has proved himself capable of not only getting more from Iran’s national team in his seven years in charge but of also drastically improving Iranian football in general. He will have his team well drilled, difficult to beat and the memory of that last-minute Messi goal denying them a draw against Argentina in 2014 to inspire anew.
Key Man – Sardar Azmoun
Azmoun remains Iran’s great goalscoring hope. Scouted by most of Europe at one point or another (and yes, Arsene Wenger was said to have made an offer) he has not been in great form this season for Rubin Kazan. But class is permanent etc, and his 11 goals in qualifying were vital to Iran’s success. Queiroz will be hoping he lives up to the undoubted potential this summer and he definitely has the ability to take a defender or two by surprise.
What should we expect?
They won’t give away anything cheaply and they will counter well but ultimately finish fourth. Like Morocco, they were up against it the minute the draw was made. Progress doesn’t always have to be measured in a single World Cup performance.