- Group B at the 2018 World Cup figures to be ruled by neighboring foes Spain and Portugal, but Iran and Morocco possess the quality to make things interesting for the two powers.
In one sense, last December’s draw saw Portugal receive one of the rawest deals of them all. The defending European champions immediately became second fiddle in their own group after drawing Iberian Peninsula neighbor Spain, probably the strongest of the eight teams clustered in Pot 2. On the other hand, Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. were fortunate with the other two teams lumped into Group B: Iran and Morocco. Thus, the dynamic in this group is, at least on paper, quite clear. On one tier there’s Spain and Portugal, on the other Iran and Morocco.
It would seem that the biggest mystery here is not which teams will go through, but in what order Spain and Portugal will do so.
After establishing themselves as the world’s preeminent national team during that 2008-2012 stretch that saw La Furia Roja bring home two straight Euros and the 2010 World Cup, Spain comes into this tournament somewhat under the radar after crashing and burning out of the group stage four years ago in Brazil. Although some relics of that glorious past are still around—Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, and David Silva, to name a few—this Spanish team has a number of fresh faces who could be difference makers. World Cup rookies like Thiago Alcantara, Alvaro Odriozola and Marco Asensio should play important roles, and Spain hasn’t lost since new manager Julen Lopetegui took over–an impressive stretch of 19 matches.
Iran, meanwhile, is making its second consecutive World Cup appearance and is led by a Portuguese manager in Carlos Queiroz, a longtime assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United who managed Portugal from 2008-10. This team easily won its qualification group and features 13 players stationed in Europe.
Morocco is back at the World Cup for the first time in 20 years after winning a qualification group that included heavily favored Ivory Coast. More than 60% of the players representing Morocco were born outside the country, making for an intriguingly diverse group with a wide range of backgrounds–and some impressive club credentials.
Friday, June 15 (11 a.m. ET): Morocco vs. Iran
Friday, June 15 (2 p.m. ET): Portugal vs. Spain
Wednesday, June 20 (8 a.m.): Portugal vs. Morocco
Wednesday, June 20 (2 p.m. ET): Iran vs. Spain
Monday, June 25 (2 p.m. ET): Spain vs. Morocco
Monday, June 25 (2 p.m. ET): Iran vs. Portugal
Most pivotal match
Portugal vs. Spain: The fate of Group B will likely be settled on just the second day of the tournament when historical rivals Portugal and Spain clash in Sochi. If one side is able to emerge victorious, it will feel great about its chances to win the group, having already picked up three points from what is sure to be the most difficult game.
Potential sleeper team
Again, any result here other than Portugal and Spain going through would be a massive upset. But if forced to choose between Iran and Morocco in identifying a sleeper, the choice is Morocco. Herve Renard's side was absolutely fantastic in qualifying, scoring 11 goals without conceding a single one. It's organized and disciplined defensively, led by Juventus’s Medhi Benatia, and this is a team that could steal a 1-0 victory via a counterattack goal.
Players to watch
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal): This Portuguese side has a healthy dose of non-Ronaldo quality, but this team’s fortunes still rest on the shoulders of its No. 7. Now 33, this might be Ronaldo’s last chance to add the one thing missing on his sparkling resume: a World Cup title. He had another fantastic season for Real Madrid, scoring 26 goals in 27 La Liga appearances and 15 Champions League goals in just 13 games, and we know that he is never lacking in confidence. Portugal can play with anyone when Ronaldo is at his dangerous best.
Koke (Spain): The 26-year-old Atletico Madrid man has taken the reins from Xavi as Spain’s deeper-lying playmaker, and he’s a worthy candidate to do so. Teams are going to sit back and let Spain possess, so Koke’s task will be to make the type of incisive passes that rip defenses apart.
Sardar Azmoun (Iran): Iran doesn’t have enough quality to control possession against Spain or Portugal, so it’ll rely on absorbing pressure and trying to steal a goal via counterattack. Its best bet to do so is to play through Azmoun, the talented 23-year-old striker, who plies his craft for Russia’s Rubin Kazan.
Hakim Ziyech (Morocco): The 25-year-old represented the Netherlands, his country of birth, at the youth level before pledging his future to Morocco in 2015. Since then, he’s emerged as a star attacking midfielder for Ajax and will play a key role in Russia.
Predictions to go through
It's tempting to go with Morocco here, particularly given Portugal’s less-than-inspiring play in the pre-tournament friendlies, but talent wins the day here. Spain and Portugal have vastly superior quality at basically every position, which generally bodes well for future prospects. Spain wins the group by comfortably beating Portugal on June 15.