(At the time of publishing, Julen Lopetegui was the head coach of the Spanish national team. He has since been sacked by the Royal Spanish Football Federation. The story has since been updated.)
This group might well feature the tie of the round as Portugal and Spain clash on 15th June. The reigning European champions will clash with their predecessors and the victor could very well top Group B.
Iran are Asian heavyweights but have floundered at the world level. Team Melli will look to earn maximum points against Morocco. The Africans will benefit from Mehdi Benatia and Herve Renard’s experience and will look to do more than just make up the numbers.
Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, and Iran
La Roja will be desperate to banish the memories of 2014 in Rio where, as defending champions, they crashed out in the group stages, suffering a humiliating 5-1 loss to Louis Van Gaal’s Netherlands.
Spain’s pedigree is unquestionable, as they won three major tournaments in the space of four years from 2008 to 2012, but a transition phase has seen them weakened. Attempting to build a World Cup winning squad, Julen Lopetegui had opted for the services of powerful forward Diego Costa over the hot-and-cold Alvaro Morata.
Thirteen of the 23-man squad come from the big three in Spain, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona as they swept their way to Group G in qualifying, finishing ahead of Italy without losing a single match.
They should win this group, ahead of European champions Portugal.
The Spanish federation chief Luis Rubiales confirmed on Wednesday that newly announced Real Madrid manager Julen Lopetegui had been sacked two days before Spain’s opener against Portugal, following the abrupt announcement by the 13-time European Cup/Champions League winners left the authorities in the dark. It remains to be seen how this abrupt change in head coach and the incoming boss will affect Spain’s hopes of winning a second World Cup.
Key Player: David Silva
Sergio Ramos and Andres Iniesta are the two most capped players in the squad with 152 and 127 appearances to their name, but David Silva with 121 caps isn’t far behind. He has been deployed in a deeper role at club level by Pep Guardiola, but the Manchester City man has flourished. At 32, he still looks like he has a few years left in him. Spain’s midfield is power packed, but Silva is the locksmith and the magician.
World Cup record:
Spain have qualified for the World Cup 15 times and have won the title once in 2010. They beat Netherlands 1-0 in extra time in the final, via Andres Iniesta’s 116th-minute goal.
Spain should top this group, but they’ll be keen to avoid slipping up in their opening game against Portugal. Seven points should be a minimum for the 2010 champions.
The 2016 European champions are into their seventh World Cup finals and will be hoping to build on their continental triumph as they seek to reach their first World Cup summit clash.
Qualify from this group and they will face one of Russia, Uruguay, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, and this will give the Iberians confidence that a quarter-final run should be the bare minimum return from Russia.
Goncalo Guedes had a good season at Valencia and the forward will be confident of replicating his display at the World Cup, given that Bernardo Silva, Joao Moutinho and Cristiano Ronaldo will bring the firepower. Similar to the side that triumphed in France, Portugal have always proved themselves as plucky outsiders. An ageing defence of Bruno Alves (36), Pepe (35) and Jose Fonte (34) will struggle against quicker sides.
Key Player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Thirty-three and still going strong, with a third straight Champions League medal to his name, the Portuguese captain has never set the World stage alight and will be looking to right that statistic this time around.
His season started slowly with only two goals in his first 10 league games, but come the business end of the season, Ronaldo came to the fore and finished strong. With 81 goals in 150 games, he is also the side’s most experienced player and in what could be his last World Cup, will look to bow out on a high.
World Cup record:
Seventh World Cup appearance but Portugal have ruffled some feathers in the past, starting with Eusebio’s team back in 1966, which finished third. Lost a tight semi-final 1-0 to France in 2006. Fifth straight tournament but failed to clear the group stages at Brazil 2014.
They should finish second in the group, but that could mean a potential tie against Uruguay in the Round of 16, something that Fernando Santos’s men will be desperate to avoid by finishing top.
In any other group, Iran would have fancied a small chance of progression but the presence of European heavyweights Spain and Portugal complicates matters for Carlos Queiroz’s men.
The three-time Asian champions have struggled to get past the first round in their previous four appearances and it might be a repeat in Russia. Twelve of the 23 are based in Europe and the squad is relatively, on the younger side, with only five players aged 30 or above.
There are many exciting talents in this team, with the likes of Ostersund’s Saman Ghoddos, Reza Ghoochannejhad and the fleet-footed Sardar Azmoun looking to push the team ahead. The game against Morocco is a must-win one.
Key Player: Sardar Azmoun
The Rubin Kazan forward has been referred to by many names: the Iranian Messi, a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the successor to the legendary Ali Daei himself. His goals per games ratio for the national team is incredible and, with 23 strikes in 33 games, he has already established himself as Iran’s fifth-highest goalscorer. Having only debuted in 2014, 11 strikes in World Cup qualification have also seen him as the current squad’s top marksman with no one else bagging more than 17 in Iran colours.
World Cup record:
They have participated in four previous World Cups but have only ever won one match at the finals, a 2-1 win over the United States in 1998. Their second straight tournament under Queiroz, they earned a clean sheet against Nigeria last time before holding Argentina for close to 90 minutes. Lionel Messi had popped up with the winning goal.
Iran are likely to finish third in the group, but a win against Morocco in their opener and a point against either Spain or Portugal could see them in the mix for a Round of 16 spot. Still, it would require a considerable effort from them to make it past the Iberian duo.
The Atlas Lions finished top of Group C in World Cup qualification, and will be participating in football’s showpiece tournament after a gap of 20 years. On their way, they knocked out African heavyweights Ivory Coast and Mali, but Herve Renard’s squad is easily the lowest seeds in this group.
Achraf Hakimi, Nabil Dirar and Mehdi Benatia will bring the defensive strength to this side but the attack will have Renard worried. Only Ayoub El Kaabi has more than ten goals to his name as the Africans are one of the most inexperienced squads in this World Cup. Defensive solidity is the platform on which any further progression will have to be based on, with Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech set to provide the creative spark in attack.
Key Player: Mehdi Benatia
The team’s wall and its most high-profile player, Juventus centre-back Mehdi Benatia will look to shepherd the Africans’ defence against the might of Spain and Portugal. Boasting an impressive list of his clubs on his resume, Roma and Bayern Munich included, Benatia also scored the winner against Ivory Coast in November 2017 to send Morocco through to the World Cup finals.
World Cup Record:
Morocco stunned the world in 1986, when they topped a group containing England, Poland and Portugal, but were drawn against eventual runners-up West Germany in the next round. That remains their best result till date, and they narrowly missed out on a knockout berth in their last appearance in 1998, finishing below Brazil and Norway in their group.
The Maghreb warriors from North Africa should struggle in Russia, although Renard’s tactical nous and a couple of clean sheets could push them into the reckoning. Very little between them and Iran, and the opening match between these two will be an intriguing one.