World Cup Preview: Group B
In a group containing the 2010 World Cup winners, and the reigning European Champions, it looks as though Morocco and Iran are left hopeless.
Kris Gourlay previews Group B at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and insists that the ‘minnows’ are not there to make up the numbers.
Group B at this Summer’s World Cup showcases European Champions, Portugal, Former World Cup and European Championship winners, Spain, as well as Morocco and Iran. At a glance, the group already seems a done deal, but could Morocco show they are not just in Russia to make up the numbers? With a blend of experience and youth, they may see themselves threatening Spain and Portugal for a spot in the knockout stage this year. Spain look the obvious group-toppers and maybe even eventual winners with the flair and depth in midfield and defence, twinned with the brute force of everyone’s favourite villain, Diego Costa.
Portugal return to the international scene, with a point to prove that their 2016 European Championship win wasn’t just a fluke. Cristiano Ronaldo will be as ravenous as ever, joined at the helm with star players Bernardo Silva and Goncalo Guedes. Iran will certainly feel as if their chance to perform on the big stage has been hampered by the quality of their group, but nobody should be counted out until the tournament kicks off, as their star player Sardar Azmoun, who many dubbed the ‘Iranian Messi’ upon links to Liverpool last season, will be looking to light up the group stages to finally get his big move in the transfer market.
Starting with the defence, Spain have arguably the two best and consistent centre backs in La Liga in Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique. Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta may well be left out if Spain play a 4 at the back formation but is certainly capable of filling the boots of either centre back, with the ever-trusty Jordi Alba proving the width and pace down the left flank and Real Madrid ace, Dani Carvajal slotting in at right back, amid fears that the defender would initially miss the World Cup after limping off against Liverpool in the Champions League Final.
Spain are also bolstered by the having the best goalkeeper in the world right now, David De Gea. Onto the midfield and this is where Julen Lopetegui faces a problem. With players such as Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Saul and Sergio Busquets to choose from in midfield, he also has playmakers such as Isco, Thiago and Koke to consider.
Up front, the pantomime Villain, Diego Costa will surely start most games, with the striker looking to put his Chelsea transfer woes firmly in the past. In the past Spain have liked to play with a packed midfield and a lack of out-and-out forwards, so it would be no surprised to see Costa deployed as the only forward in most games, as the midfield is good enough to defend the back 4 and provide service to the striker.
Portugal go into the competition with the dark horse card no longer active, having won the European Championships in 2016, beating a great France team in the final, and slamming their authority amongst the world’s top teams.
Star Player Cristiano Ronaldo will be chomping at the bit to add the World Cup to his never-ending trophy cabinet, at it is the only major trophy he has failed to win in his unforgettable career. Experience counts in these matches, so a back two of Pepe and Bruno Alves is how Portugal may line up for the tournaments. In what these two lack in mobility, they make up for in their mentality to win.
Southampton right back Cedric has shown promising things in England and will more than likely start the first game against Spain, with Dortmund’s Raphael Guerreiro at left back, an excellent crosser of the ball, but has struggled with injuries this season and his game time has been limited. Starting every game may be above him.
In midfield, Portugal have a similar state of affairs as Spain do in this regard with too many great midfielders. Joao Mario, William Carvalho, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Moutinho and Adrien Silva are all up for selection, with Andre Silva looking to state a claim to AC Milan manager Gennero Gattuso, who has shut the door on him since his arrival in Italy. It goes without saying that Ronaldo will play every game at the tournament, injured or not. He may well be supported up front with Goncalo Guedes, the young winger on loan at Valencia, who has had a promising season and acored twice in Portugal’s latest friendly vs Algeria. Bernardo Silva will also be hoping to play most games after impressing for City last season whenever called upon.
Morocco will be ready to pounce upon a Portugal mistake, with coach Herve Renard, having won the Afircan Cup of Nations twice. He also has a host of promising attacking midfielders at his disposal, including Ajax wonderkid Hakim Ziyech, who without a doubt will seal a big move after the tournament, providing he plays to his full capability.
Morocco also have a solid defensive record as of late so could certainly have their eye on that precious 2nd place spot. Striker Younes Behlanda has the ability to unlock any defence, combined with Watford wide man, Nordin Amrabat providing pace and trickery, Morocco will certainly score goals.
Iran go into the Group stages under-prepared as a lack of games against solid opposition in the build- up to the World Cup has halted their progression. In defence, Iran kept an impressive 12 consecutive clean sheets in their qualifying phase and will be looking to close out some of the worlds best talents in their opening games.
The main problem Iran suffer from is attacking talent and goal scorers. As mentioned, Serdar Azmoun has a decent international return but apart from him, they lack creativity and conviction up front, which could decide their tournament. They will certainly be looking to hit teams on the counter-attack, rather than taking the slow build-up approach, it’ll be all hands-on deck for most of the tournament.
For my prediction, I’m going for the safe approach of Spain first, Portugal second, Morocco a close third and Iran fourth. Spain have looked the team of old in their qualifiers and friendlies this year and I can see them going all the way in Russia. Portugal will, in my opinion, scrape through the groups with two defeats to Spain, and bow-out in the Quarter-finals. Whatever the outcome, Spain vs Portugal will be a great opening game in the group and will give an early indication of how both teams will progress in the competition.