With the World Cup in Russia now just around the corner, it is time to look ahead to who we think will perform on the big stage. We will start off by looking at who we believe will progress through the group stages.
Sports Courant writer Sam Straw has taken a closer look at Group B which includes Portugal, Spain, Morocco and Iran.
I’m tipping Spain to progress as group winners from Group B, mainly due to the number of players they have that have experience of what it takes to be successful at a major international tournament. The basis of the squad is built on the likes of Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Thiago, David Silva, Andrés Iniesta and more, who all have experience of winning at both the European Championships and the World Cup. They should have too much for the likes of Iran and Morocco to deal with and should also do enough to finish above Portugal.
Despite the disappointment of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, new manager Julen Lopetegui has implemented his own ideas, and they look to be a real force once again. They are likely to operate in either the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation and look to dominate games with their possession-based style of play. There are very few weaknesses in their starting line-up, and I expect them to qualify for the knockout stages of the competition comfortably.
Fernando Santos will be hoping his Portugal side can defy the odds once again, just like they did at the European Championships in France two years ago. Despite the fact they failed to win a single game in the group stages, they went on to beat Croatia, Poland, Wales and France in the knockout stages to lift the trophy. 33-year-old Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo played a key role in this, and Portugal’s hopes of performing this summer will again be largely pinned on his shoulders.
Santos tends to set his team up in a 4-4-2 formation, with Ronaldo as one of the main forwards. However, Ronaldo is not the only player to look out for this summer. Bernardo Silva played a key role in Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking Manchester City side this season and will be hoping that he can play a key part this summer for his country. The main reason I believe they will finish below Spain is due to their defensive vulnerabilities. The likes of Bruno Alves, Pepe and Jose Fonte are all in the latter stages of their career and could be exploited by pace.
Morocco face Iran in their opening fixture of the World Cup on June 15, and this could well determine who finishes third in the group. Herve Renard’s side should have enough to beat Iran, but it is unlikely they will pick any points up against Spain and Portugal. They have been drawn in a very tough group which makes it unlikely that they will repeat their feat of making it out of the group stage in the 1986 World Cup. They do have a couple of dangerous players, most notably Watford winger Nordin Amrabat, who has recently been on loan at Club Deportivo Leganés in La Liga.
Renard is likely to set Morocco up very defensively, which is arguably their biggest strength. They qualified for this summer’s tournament without conceding a single goal. However, this defensive approach may not be very effective against the likes of Spain and Portugal who are likely to find a way through their defence eventually.
I think that Iran will finish bottom of Group B, mainly because they have only ever won one match in World Cup finals history. Carlos Queiroz has set them up to be a very well-organised outfit that are difficult to beat. Similarly to Morocco, they performed very well in qualifying, remaining unbeaten and conceding only two goals. However, they have not come up against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo during qualifying, and this is likely to be too much for them to deal with. Their best chance of picking up their second win in World Cup finals history will be against Morocco in their opening game.
Iran arguably have a better chance of performing this summer than they have done in other major international tournaments. This is because they now have a striker that is capable of finding the back of the net on a regular basis. Sardar Azmoun has scored 23 goals for Iran since making his debut in 2014 and will be hoping that he can improve this impressive record in Russia this summer.