Last time we took a look at and predicted the outcome of Group A of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. We made some pretty bold decisions. But that’s in the past now. Time to move on Group B! But first, a reminder of what the groups look like.
Draw: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
This group has two of the world’s biggest teams, Portugal and Spain, that have the best chance of moving on. Cristiano Ronaldo has helped lead his squad to a Euro 2016 championship and is the newly crowned Balon d’or winner. Spain, 2010 winners, have one of the best goalkeepers and defenders in the world in De Gea and Ramos. The game against each other is going to be one for the ages. The other teams. Well, Lucas Leiva can take it for here.
Spain have some very exciting talent to showcase this tournament. 2010 champions, they laid an egg at the 2014 tournament (and a very rotten one at that). After getting embarrassed against the Dutch and Chile by a combined score of 7-1, they have a lot to prove this time around. And start to prove it they have. Never losing a game in WCQs, they start by locking down the back line with the trio of Ramos (Real Madrid, Spain) and Pique (Barcelona, Spain), as well as arguably the bet goalkeeper in the world at the moment, David De Gea (Manchester United, England).
They have a dangerous rotation in the midfield that can be tweaked to match up however they want against whoever they want. Need someone to pull strings between the lines? David Silva (Manchester City, England) or Iniesta (Barcelona, Spain) are at your service. Need someone to sit in front of the back line and win everything? Sergio Busquets (Barcelona, Spain) is ready to go. Need a real number 8 to do it all? Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich, Germany) or Isco (Real Madrid, Spain) are ready at any time. Plus, any of the players on the bench to replace them are capable as well.
In attack, Alvaro Morata (Chelsea, England) has proven that he can live up to the names that he shadowed at Real Madrid and Juventus. Their wing play can be better, but overall, this team is dangerous and has a lot of different tools on their belt. They can hit you from a lot different angles and when you try to hit them back, you’ll probably come up empty. They’ll utilize their depth and experience to pick apart their opponents and top the group.
The most recent champions of Europe and Confederations Champions, Portugal have had a rather successful WCQ, losing only once to
Switzerland. With the most recent Balon D’or winner Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid, Spain) leading their lines, Portugal have a player who can literally take over a game on his own whenever he wants. However, as they say, it takes a village. And Portugal are not as deep nor talented as the Spanish team this year.
Rui Patrico (Sporting CP, Portugal) has shown his capability to play big when the time calls for it, but in one more year, the 2 most frequently selected CBs Pepe (Bestikas, Turkey) and Jose Fonte (West Ham, England) will be 35 and 34 respectively. They say age is just a number, but that number will definitely show when they are getting torn apart by the quick tiki taka play of Iniesta, Silva, and Morata.
In midfield they show promise for the future. Bright young stars like Ruben Neves (Wolves, England) and Bernardo Silva (Manchester City, England) show excitement, while the veteran presence of Joao Mario (Inter, Italy), William Carvalho (Sporting CP, Portugal), and Joao Moutinho (Monaco, France) help lead the way for the Portugese. Up front, more promise. Andre Silva compliments Ronaldo nicely, picking up 9 goals over the WCQ cycle, second only to Cristiano. The problem with this team lies with who steps up when Ronaldo has an off game, which we all know is possible if his form in La Liga speaks for anything.
They are going up against a tough Spanish back line and a surprisingly decent Moroccan side. If either Ronaldo or Silva can’t put one away, their next leading scorer is William Carvalho with 2. Not exactly the definition of reliable. They will finish 2nd in the group and advance, but it may get sketchy and they may have to squeak out a result to do it.
The Moroccans are making their first World Cup appearance since 1998, qualifying in extremely impressive fashion. Behind the defensive leadership of Medhi Benatia (Juventus, Italy), they went through a flawless WCQ cycle, winning 3, drawing 3, and giving up 0 goals, shutting out teams like Ivory Coast and Gabon, that includes players like the always dangerous Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Gervinho and Salomon Kalou. They have proven that they can hold their own with some of the best strikers in the world.
However, they also had 3 scoreless draws. This speaks to their inability to put the ball away against stronger teams. Their top scorers in WCQs this year had 4 and 2 goals respectively and many others had 1. Benatia will do his best to keep things tight in the back, but he can only do so much against the Ronaldo’s and the David Silva’s of the world before he breaks.
A player to watch from this Moroccan side will be Hakim Ziyech (Ajax, Netherlands). A part of the brilliant Ajax youth movement, Ziyech is quick and dynamic going forward. He has 3 goals and 8 assists in the Everdivise this season and creates 4.4 key passes a game. He could be a real game changer for the Moroccans and help them put pressure on the two powerhouses in this group. It would not surprise me if they snuck a draw out of Portugal, but it is unlikely they get the results they need, and they will finish third in the group. One thing is for sure, they’re going to make it interesting and a lot of fun to watch.
Iran are returning for the 2nd time in as many attempts after topping their group in AFCON qualification. They got the short end of the stick here, in all honesty. To keep it short, if they score a goal this year, they should consider this a successful campaign. They have only had one FIFA World Cup win in their history, and with this group, it will be hard for them to add onto that total. However, they can keep up with the best of them. Flashing back to 2014 when it took a 90th minute bit of magic from Messi to finish them off, it proves they can play with anyone.
Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan, Russia) is the teams leading goal scorer through qualification with 11. This is to be taken with a grain of salt, based on the competition level. (They once beat Guam 19-0 and had a 6-goal scorer in the game). Nothing personal against the Iranians, but they will bottom out the group and probably wont make any splash in the waters this year.