Beiranvand, Torabi, Hajsafi, Cheshmi, Mohammadi, Ezatolahi, Shojaei (c), Pouraliganji, Ebrahimi, Ansarifard, Amiri, Mazaheri, Khanzadeh, Ghoddos, Montazeri, Ghoochannejhad, Taremi, Jahanbakhsh, Hosseini, Azmoun, Dejagah, Abedzadeh, Rezaeian (Manager: Carlos Quieroz)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Iran’s talisman at the 2018 World Cup, much like in Brazil 2014, will be Heerenveen attacker Reza Ghoochannejhad, a former Dutch youth international who has plied most of his professional trade in the leagues of the Netherlands and Belgium. A creative force up front, he’s the man most likely to break defences, with 17 goals from 43 international caps. Ghoochannejhad is coming off a relatively quiet 2017-18 season, only scoring 10 goals in 36 games, compared to 22 in 39 the season prior. Still, he’ll have to be the main channel of attack should Iran have any chance of advancing.
UNDER THE RADAR
You might be familiar with the name Ashkan Dejagah from his time at Fulham, but it’s been a relatively quiet couple of years from the former German youth international. Dejagah has only made 5 first team appearances since the start of the 2016-17 season, mainly due to injuries, mostly to his hamstring. On his day, Dejagah is a powerful runner down the wing and possesses great dribbling and crossing skill. The question will be if he’s anywhere close to match fit, but if he’s good to go, he can provide Iran with a great secondary option, most likely off the bench.
KEY MAN OUT
Iran will be taking a relatively inexperienced defence to the World Cup, with only three named defenders possessing over 20 international caps. One man with experience who won’t be in Russia is Persepolis central defender Jalal Hosseini, who has represented his country 116 times. Besides a short stint in Qatar with Al Ahli, Hosseini has spent his entire pro career in Iran, amassing almost 500 appearances while maintaining a high level of durability. He could’ve been a good foil for some of the youth that Iran has taken to the cup.
I don’t expect Iran to break their streak of never advancing past the group stage in the World Cup, but they definitely have the players to cause a headache or two, especially if the likes of Dejagah and Ghoochannejhad can work their combinations. Question marks linger over their defence and whether they’ll be able to handle at all the high powered attacks of Spain and Portugal.
Iran actually went undefeated during the final round of AFC qualifying, topping their group with 22 points, a group that included South Korea, Syria, Uzbekistan, China and 2022 hosts Qatar. As much as I’ve ragged on the defence here, they were sterling during qualifying, only conceding 2 goals in their 10 games in the third round. Their notable results include a 1-0 win over South Korea at home, while travelling to earn a 0-0 draw in Seoul.
Played: 10. Won: 6. Drawn: 4. Lost: 0. Goals For: 10. Goals Against: 2. Points: 22.
Bounou, Hakimi, Mendyl, Da Costa, Benatia (c), Saiss, Ziyech, El Hamadi, El Kaabi, Belhanda, Fajr, Mohamedi, Boutaïb, Boussoufa, Bennasser, N. Amrabat, Dirar, Harit, En-Nesyri, Bouhaddouz, S. Amrabat, Tagnaouti, Carcela. (Manager: Hervé Renard)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Medhi Benatia is the key to this Moroccan squad given his experience in Europe’s top leagues, namely with Juventus, Bayern Munich and Roma. A strong leader with decent, if not express, pace and elite positioning skills, he’s established himself as one of the premier defenders in European football, despite a relative lack of game time during his stints at Juve and Bayern due to the vast defensive stocks of both clubs. A respectable ball player, Benatia’s athleticism and skill will be key in shutting down opposition raids.
UNDER THE RADAR
Dutch-born midfielder Hakim Ziyech has established himself as an important member of the Ajax midfield during his two seasons at the club and will be looking to do the same for Morocco in Russia. A goal-scoring creative midfielder, he scored 9 goals in the Eredivisie last term in 34 appearances and was rewarded with a spot in the Atlas Lions midfield. Tall for a number 10, the 25-year-old brings youth and flair, and with 8 international goals already in 17 appearances, looks like a long term option for Morocco.
KEY MAN OUT
If there is a strength in the Morocco side, it’s definitely in their midfield, with a number of creative influences including the Amrabat brothers, Mbark Boussoufa and Hakim Ziyech. Therefore, Southampton midfielder Sofiane Boufal can consider himself unlucky to not be included in the 23 man squad. A lack of goal scoring output can be pointed to, as Boufal has only managed three league goals in his two years on the south coast, with Ziyech preferred in his role.
Morocco definitely have talent across the park, including a strong foundation at the back with Benatia and creative midfield generals in Boussoufa and Ziyech. The weakness lies in the relative lack of experience and productivity in the strike force, with the four listed attackers (El Kaabi, Boutaib, Bouhaddouz and En-Nesyri) only having 55 international caps combined. Morocco will need to rely on midfield dominance in order to advance from this tough group, but that may be a struggle against Spain and Portugal, who will try and starve them of any meaningful possession.
Mbark Boussoufa - 2001-2004 - Youth Player (h/t user theRamster_again! in the comments)
Morocco breezed through the final round of CAF qualifying, winning Group C ahead of Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon and Mali. Morocco did not concede a goal in their 6 games, scoring 11 themselves. They did have three 0-0 draws but thumped Mali 6-0 and travelled well, defeating Côte d’Ivoire 2-0 on their turf.
Played: 6. Won: 3. Drawn: 3. Lost: 0. Goals For: 11. Goals Conceded: 0. Points: 12.
Rui Patricio, Bruno Alves, Pepe, Manuel Fernandes, Raphael Guerreiro, Jose Fonte, Cristiano Ronaldo (c), Joao Moutinho, Andre Silva, Joao Mario, Bernardo Silva, Anthony Lopes, Ruben Dias, William Carvalho, Ricardo Pereira, Bruno Fernandes, Goncalo Guedes, Gelson Martins, Mario Rui, Quaresma, Cedric, Beto, Adrien Silva (Manager: Fernando Santos)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Obviously Cristiano Ronaldo. Coming off another otherworldly season for Real Madrid, despite a 5 match ban for shoving a referee, he still managed to score 44 goals in 44 games as Real Madrid won their third straight Champions League title. There isn’t much more to say about Cristiano Ronaldo that hasn’t already been said. He will be the focus of opposition game plans, but it likely won’t matter.
UNDER THE RADAR
The fact that William Carvalho is still at Sporting CP is somewhat surprising considering the constant transfer speculation that has linked him with a move away for the past 2-3 years, most notably to Arsenal. However, Carvalho has stayed and established himself as one of Portugal’s premier options in the centre of midfield. Powerful and robust, he’s the man charged with protection Portugal’s defence, a job he is well equipped to accomplish given his large size at 1.90m and his constantly whirring engine. Adept on the ball as well, he isn’t much of a goal scorer but is a pivotal part to Portugal’s success.
KEY MAN OUT
Portugal, such is their talent level, can afford to leave some top quality players at home, including the likes of Andre Gomes, Ruben Neves and Renato Sanches, even though the latter struggled at club level this past season. However, it’s hard to look past the exclusion of Nani, who was cut from the provisional 35-man squad and won’t be on the plane to Russia. Despite a quiet season on loan at Lazio from Valencia, Nani still possesses immeasurable international experience with 112 caps and 24 goals. His flair and trickery on the wing was however surplus to requirements as Portugal decided to go with the likes of Gelson Martins and Bernardo Silva instead.
Portugal, the defending Champions of Europe, have the best player in the group, that much is inarguable, but are they the best team in the group? If Portugal are to advance from the group, which they realistically should do with a certain degree of ease, then Cristiano will need to get some support. Luckily, he isn’t short of creative options, including the likes of Bernardo Silva, Andre Silva and the experienced Ricardo Quaresma. The defence is also full of strong imposing players like Pepe and Jose Fonte, while being screened by the industrious Carvalho. The only question is whether the wing backs will be caught too high up the pitch allowing for swift counter attacks. Cedric Soares and Raphael Guerreiro, the likely starting wing backs, will need to provide good service to their main weapon up front, but also not leave the center backs high and dry.
Ricardo Quaresma — 2009 (on loan): 5 appearances, 0 goals
Portugal dominated Group B of UEFA qualifying, winning 9 of their 10 games along the way. They weren’t unchallenged, as Switzerland also won 9 of 10, but Portugal’s superior goal difference of +28 compared to +16 meant they achieved automatic qualification for Russia 2018. Portugal and Switzerland both lost their one game to each other in enemy territory, with the home team winning 2-0 both times. Portugal took care of business against lesser competition, routing the likes of Latvia, Andorra and the Faroe Islands, while Hungary finished third in the group.
Played: 10. Won: 9. Drawn: 0. Lost: 1. Goals For: 32. Goals Conceded: 4. Points: 27.
De Gea, Carvajal, Pique, Nacho, Busquets, Iniesta, Saul, Koke, Rodrigo, Thiago, Lucas Vazquez, Odriozola, Arrizabalaga, Azpilicueta, Sergio Ramos (c), Monreal, Aspas, Alba, Diego Costa, Asensio, David Silva, Isco, Pepe Reina (Manager: Julen Lopetegui)
PLAYER TO WATCH
At age 34, Andres Iniesta is still the straw that stirs the Spanish sherry. One of the best central midfielders of all time and a one of the last surviving members from Spain’s 2010 title, the Barcelona stalwart will be the heartbeat of their 2018 World Cup campaign. Along with the likes of Sergio Busquets and David Silva in the centre of the pitch, it will be Iniesta’s elite vision and passing ability that will be key to setting the tempo and unlocking opposition defences both in the group stage and beyond, should Spain avoid a repeat of their disastrous Brazilian adventure four years ago.
UNDER THE RADAR
Jordi Alba is coming off a fantastic season for a very successful Barcelona side, supplementing a high powered attack with fantastic delivery from the left flank and his superior pace allowing him to beat a man one on one. However, a real point of difference for this Spanish side is Real Madrid youngster Marco Asensio. He made 53 appearances in all competitions for Madrid this season, scoring 11 goals from midfield. Powerful and quick, he can operate either centrally or out wide, and at 6 feet tall, is also a danger from set pieces. When you can establish yourself in the best club side in the world at such a young age (Asensio is recently 22), you can only command respect on the world stage. He could be one of the biggest stars to emerge at this World Cup (there are always a few).
KEY MAN OUT
Any one of Chelsea’s quartet who missed out (Morata, Fàbregas, Alonso, Pedro) could conceivably be here, but I’m going to go with Alvaro Morata. He may have had a quiet second half of the season for Chelsea but is still a highly dangerous striker who can hurt teams both aerially (as we found out early in the season) and with his feet (Stoke hat trick). He has been prolific for the national team with 13 goals in 23 caps, but ultimately the second-half of the season cost him his place, with the older, and more importantly, in-form likes of Iago Aspas, Rodrigo and Lucas Vazquez preferred.
Spain are probably the most complete team in Group B, pairing an elite defence with an attack capable of going on an all-out blitz. Spain’s famous tiki-taka style football will be on full display with a Barcelona-centric midfield of Iniesta and Busquets running the show, and it will be this death by a thousand cuts that will allow Spain to advance through the group comfortably. The question with Spain in the later stages will be whether their midfield has the athleticism to compete against the likes of Brazil, Germany and France. Spain will control possession in most games they play, but will need to protect themselves against quick counters.
César Azpilicueta — 2012-current: 280 appearances, 8 goals
Diego Costa — 2014-2017: 120 appearances, 59 goals
Spain absolutely marched through Group G, winning 9 of their 10 games on the way to automatic qualification, with their only negative result a 1-1 draw away to Italy, who were their closest competition. Spain only conceded 3 goals in qualifying while pouring in 36 themselves, including 5 each for Diego Costa, Morata, Isco and David Silva. Spain were fairly unchallenged by the likes of Israel, Macedonia, Albania and Liechtenstein, especially at home, only conceding once to Israel, while they ground out important wins when travelling.
Played: 10. Won: 9. Drawn: 1. Lost: 0. Goals For: 36. Goals Against: 3. Points: 28.
* all times given in Moscow Standard Time (UTC + 3)
15/6/18 - 6pm - Morocco vs. Iran - Saint Petersburg
15/6/18 - 9pm - Portugal vs. Spain - Sochi
20/6/18 - 3pm - Portugal vs. Morocco - Moscow
20/6/18 - 9pm - Iran vs. Spain - Kazan
25/6/18 - 9pm - Iran vs. Portugal - Saransk
25/6/18 - 9pm - Spain vs. Morocco - Kaliningrad
I think 95% of pundits will predict a fairly comfortable Spain and Portugal advancement here in Group B. Morocco definitely have some quality in the midfield, as do Iran, but a lack of a real potent striker up front may hinder both teams from creating too many quality chances, especially with Spain and Portugal, both high possession teams, likely to dominate the ball for large stretches of games. Spain will put to bed the demons of 2014 with a refreshed squad and advance in first place while Portugal will take out second. For Morocco to advance, the likes of Boussoufa, Benatia and Ziyech will need to rise tall and take command, while Ghoochannejhad and Dejagah will be the two men tasked with leading Iran to glory.