Two European heavyweights – 2010 champion Spain and reigning continental champion Portugal – have been drawn together, and what better way to start the group engagements than with the two facing off at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi on June 15 in what is probably the most sough-after match in the group stages. Iran and Morocco provide variety to this group, which promises a lot of nice contests if all four sides are able to perform to their potential.
The 2010 champion is one of the contenders for the Cup under new coach Julen Lopetegui. The managerial change from Vicente del Bosque to Lopetegui has somewhat reinvigorated the side after its unceremonious exits in the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championship, where it failed to defend either crown. Since his appointment as Spain’s coach, the 51-year-old Lopetegui seemed to have instilled pride in a side that dominated world football in the first half of the decade. Under him, Spain won 13 and drew six of the 19 games it played till June 3.
On the tactical front, the essential change that Lopetegui forged was altering from the famous 4-3-3 system to a more conservative 4-5-1 formation as the team failed to find quality wingers. The challenge for the side will be in improvising to have the best selection that could replicate some of the excellence it reached under del Bosque. The team has some new names, but a fair bit of contribution from the likes of Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos, David Silva and Pepe Reina – the four survivors of the EURO 2008 title-winning side – will be expected. Among the youngsters are Marco Asensio and Alvaro Odriozola, who have already made their mark in club football.
Asensio came to prominence after winning the European Under-19 Championship with Spain. He made a perfect graduation to the senior stage by joining Real Madrid, with whom he has won two Champions League titles, one La Liga title, two Club World Cup titles and two UEFA Super Cups.
Portugal has a lot of reasons to feel confident in Russia. It won claimed the EURO 2016 tile before securing third place in the 2017 Confederations Cup, where Fernando Santos’ side defeated Mexico in the play-off at the Otkritie Arena in Moscow. Taking over in 2014, Santos has transformed an average group of players into a fairly strong team. Portugal is definitely enjoying one of the best phases of excellence and is one side that is extremely hard to beat. And its resurgence has hinged on the charisma and brilliance of one of the greatest players in history – Cristiano Ronaldo, the owner of five Ballon d’Or titles. Portugal plays generally plays the conservative 4-4-2 system with its approach shaped on a defensive game. But with Ronaldo inspiring its attack, it has been quite prolific in attacking – the side scored 32 goals while conceding only four in the qualifiers.
Who else but the talismanic Cristiano Ronaldo? Definitely one of the greatest players in history, Ronaldo is one of the stars galvanising attention in the tournament, being the all-time leading scorer for both Portugal and his club side Real Madrid. These are some of the reasons why he has won four of Best FIFA Men’s Player in the last five years.
The Asian powerhouse will be eager to prove itself after qualifying back-to-back World Cups. The strength of the team can be assessed from the fact it possesses a solid defence that conceded just five goals in 18 qualifying games. Shaping up well under Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz, who has been with the side for the last seven years, Iran has an equally good attack that boasting of some of the continent’s finest forwards. It is a team that can cause upsets with the likes of winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Sardar Azmoun and playmaker Saeid Ezatolahi.
Iran will be looking at Azmoun to deliver. The 22-year-old striker, who plays with Russian side Rubin Kazan, scored 11 goals for Iran in the qualifiers, the same number as Tim Cahill (Australia), Christian Eriksen (Denmark) and Romelu Lukaku (Belgium).
Morocco returns to the World Cup finals 20 years after its last outing – at France 1998. Its best finish to date was in 1986, when it went beyond the first round before losing 1-0 to West Germany in the round of 16 following an 88th-minute goal by Lothar Matthaus. The Atlas Lions exited in the group stage in each of its other three appearances. Morocco has contested 13 matches in the World Cup, posting two wins, four draws and seven defeats. Interestingly, all the positive results (two wins and four draws) came against European sides, notably a 3-1 win over Portugal in 1986 and a 3-0 success over Scotland in 1998. The North African team packs quite few young talents, including the Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda, who plays for Galatasaray.
Dirar is likely to play a key role in Morocco’s performance, much like what he did for his club side Monaco that won the French league title last season. He’s moved to the Turkish Super Lig side Fenerbahce.