World Cup Preview - Group B
FIFA World Ranking: 4th
FIFA World Cup Appearances: 6 Best Place: Last 16 in S.Africa 2010.
Possible XI: (4-4-2) Patricio (GK), Guerreiro (LB), Pepe (CB), Fonte (CB), Cedric (RB), Joao Mario (LM), Moutinho (CM), W.Carvalho (CM), B.Silva (RM), Andre Silva (ST), C.Ronaldo (ST).
Fernando Santos (POR) Age: 63
Managed Portugal to Euro 2016 success in France, despite only having won one game in 90 minutes, Santos goes into his 3rd major international tournament. He has installed a sense of grit in Portugal's game, winning ugly isn't a bad term and with a record of one defeat in 29 competitive matches (excluding penalty shoot-out defeat in the Confederations Cup 2017 vs. Chile). Cristiano Ronaldo will be his most important player but the starting XI will need to work as a unit, as they did at the Euros, Santos will no doubt tinker through each game as the squad has a mix of old and young players and will have to be managed, injuries are always a danger with the aging players.
Cristiano Ronaldo (149 caps / 81 goals)
You can't really say much that hasn't already been said about this man, Cristiano is possibly one of the greatest goal scorers of all time. Leaving his club records aside (I could be writing this all day) his international record is second to none, not only has he scored an astounding 81 international goals, he has adorned the Portuguese shirt 149 times since he made his senior debut at the age of 18 in a 1–0 victory over Kazakhstan on 20 August 2003. A date for the record books as Ronaldo hasn't stopped scoring for his country, as you can imagine, he played a big part in qualifying for Russia as notched up 15 goals in just 9 matches. We will have to see if he is deployed on the wings or in a permanent central role in attack, wherever he's positioned, as long as he's on the pitch, Portugal are capable to beating anyone.
WATCH OUT FOR...
Bruno Fernandes (4 caps / 0 goals)
A set piece specialist with a superb long shot, Bruno has to ability to play in different capacities within the team for club and country. Normally playing behind the striker, Bruno can also often be
seen playing a deeper role in central midfield alongside the defensive midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Although still quite an attacking player he manages to be just as important defensively, winning the ball and starting attacks. He played his trade at Boavista before moving to Italy and making over 100 appearances in Serie A with Novara and then Udinese. He returned to his homeland to Liga NOS with Sporting for £8.5m and has had break out 2017/18 season scoring 7 goals in his first 9 matches (he finished the season with 11 goals) and his resilience and energy has been invaluable for his club and will be for his country this summer.
No doubt Cristiano Ronaldo will want to cement his legacy in football history with a World Cup winners medal. It's the only thing left for the 31-year old to win having won everything at club level and then led his country to European Championship success 2 years ago. It wasn't the greatest final but Eder's goal against France in Paris will live long in the Portuguese' memory and showed that Portugal are not afraid to dig in, look for those fleeting attacking players, and close up shop at the back. It helps that Ronaldo is Portuguese too. They are certainly an organised eleven who work hard to get results. Losing only once in 29 competitive matches isn’t anything to baulk at either and Fernando Santos should be able to steer his side through the group stage, quarter finals is the minimum for the fans, can they make the final? Well, if Cristiano is in top form, why not?
Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Beto (Goztepe), Rui Patricio (Sporting Lisbon)
Bruno Alves (Rangers), Cedric Soares (Southampton), Jose Fonte (Dalian Yifang), Mario Rui (Napoli), Pepe (Besiktas), Raphael Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund), Ricardo Pereira (Porto), Ruben Dias (Benfica)
Adrien Silva (Leicester), Bruno Fernandes (Sporting Lisbon), Joao Mario (West Ham), Joao Moutinho (AS Monaco), Manuel Fernandes (Lokomotiv Moscow), William Carvalho (Sporting)
Andre Silva (AC Milan), Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Gelson Martins (Sporting Lisbon), Goncalo Guedes (Valencia), Ricardo Quaresma (Besiktas)
FIFA World Ranking: 41st
FIFA World Cup Appearances: 4 Best Place: Group in 1970 (Mex), 1994 (USA), 1998 (FRA).
Possible XI: (4-3-3) Mounir (GK), Archraf (LB), Benatia (CB), Saiss (CB), Dirar (RB), Belhanda (CM), El Ahmadi (CM), Boussoufa (CM), N.Amrabat (RW), Boutaib (ST), Ziyech (LW)
Herve Renard (FRA) Age: 49
Renard is somewhat of a legend in African football. He has won the African Cup of Nations with two different countries, Zambia in 2012 and then Ivory Coast in 2015, the first manager to have ever done so. He hasn't had much luck as a club manager, he took over Sochaux in 2013 only to see them relegated in his first season and he had a bad spell with Lille in 2015, leaving after only 13 matches in which he accumulated only 13 points. A manager who is well respected in Africa and the players he leads while in charge, he takes a very talented Morocco into their 5th World Cup and their first since France1998 .
Medhi Benatia (54 caps / 2 goals)
The captain and leader of the team the ex-Bayern Munich centre back now plays his trade in Serie A with Turin side Juventus. He has the biggest profile in the team and appeared in the Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid in 2017. A strong, robust defender who isn't afraid to put his head in when it hurts, has played over 50 times for the 'Atlas Lions' and is pivotal to Morocco succeeding in Russia.
WATCH OUT FOR...
Mbark Boussoufa (56 caps / 7 goals)
Once dubbed a teenage prodigy the former Ajax youth player first made moves in 2006 when he joined Chelsea as a 21-year old but never really made the cut. He spent most of his career in Belgium winning the ‘Golden Shoe’ as the league’s top scorer in 2010. Now a cultured 30-year old the attacking midfielder will want to show on the biggest stage, that he isn’t just a one-time ‘Football Manager’ wonder kid and will want to make his mark on the tournament.
Morocco made it to Russia 2018 very comfortably and 6 clean sheets from 6 games in their African World Cup qualifying group is testament to their defensive capabilities and they will need that to stand a chance of progressing to the knock out phase. They have to get off to a good start against Iran and hopefully get a result against the big guns in Portugal and Spain but it wont be easy and it would not surprise me if they adopt a very defensive stance, ready for the counter attack and any set piece opportunities.
Mounir El Kajoui (Numancia), Yassine Bounou (Girona), Ahmad Reda Tagnaouti (Ittihad Tanger)
Medhi Benatia (Juventus), Romain Saiss (Wolves), Manuel Da Costa (Basaksehir), Badr Benoun (Raja Casablanca), Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahce), Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid), Hamza Mendyl (LOSC)
M'barek Boussoufa (Al Jazira), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), Youssef Ait Bennasser (Caen), Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord), Younes Belhanda (Galatasaray), Faycal Fajr (Getafe), Amine Harit (Schalke 04)
Khalid Boutaib (Malatyaspor), Aziz Bouhaddouz (Saint Pauli), Ayoub El Kaabi (Renaissance Berkane), Nordin Amrabat (Leganes), Mehdi Carcela (Standard de Liege), Hakim Ziyech (Ajax).
FIFA World Ranking: 37th
FIFA World Cup Appearances: 4 Best Place: Group in 1978 (ARG), 1998 (FRA), 2014 (BRA)
Possible XI: (4-3-3) Beiranvand (GK), Mohammadi (LB), Montazeri (CB), Pouraliganji (CB), Rezaeian (RB), Ebrahimi (CM), Ezatolahi (CM), Shojaei (CM), Ghoddos (LW), Taremi (ST), Jahanbakhsh (LW)
Carlos Queiroz (POR) Age 65
Has been Iran manager since 2011 and took them to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil where they were unlucky to have lost to Argentina in the group stage, their defence was broken thanks to a 90th minute goal from Lionel Messi. This defensive trait continues to thrive going into Russia 2018 as Queiroz installs his tactical organisation at the back and midfield resulting in Iran not conceding a goal, in African qualifying, until once they had already confirmed their place in their last game against Syria. In their first 5 games they hadn't even conceded a single shot on target. Queiroz is a very experienced international manager, he goes into his 4th World Cup after managing South Africa in 2002, Portugal in 2010, and Iran in 2014. Despite their defensive success they struggle with the other side of the pitch, their final 10 qualifiers featured only 12 goals.
Sardar Azmoun (31 caps / 23 goals)
Dubbed the 'Iranian Messi' the Rubin Kazan forward is seen as Iran’s best chance of scoring goals at this year World Cup. He has an impressive international record scoring 23 goals in 31 games and is an excellent header of the ball, something which could be useful when set pieces come around against top opposition in the group like Spain and Portugal. Although scoring for his country isn’t a problem he has struggled this season at club level only managing one goal in 23 games in the Russian Premier League which will worry Queiroz.
ONE TO WATCH...
Alireza Jahanbakhsh (37 caps / 4 goals)
This quick and technically gifted winger is making waves in the Eredivise at his club AZ Alkmaar scoring plenty of goals and providing assists which will have caught the eyes of top coaches around Europe. Only 24 years old he would do his reputation no damage by showcasing his ability in Russia and if he does demonstrate the skills he’s shown at AZ Alkmaar then he could certainly be playing at a higher level next season.
Just like Morocco, Iran will need to rely a lot on their defence; no one will expect them to get out of this group so using the speed of Jahanbakhsh is key. Queiroz is very experienced at this level and will need all of his tactical nous to try and guide Iran through to the knock outs. Counter attacks will be their best option of scoring in open play, they don't do possession football think it is fair to say group stage is as far as they will go but the game against Morocco will be important as they have a chance of recording only their second ever world cup win, if they manage to get 3 points against Spain or Portugal, they will go home as legends.
Alireza Beyranvand (Persepolis), Rashid Mazaheri (Zob Ahan), Amir Abedzadeh (Maritimo).
Ali Gholizadeh (Saipa), Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), Ramin Rezaeian (Ostende), Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), Morteza Pouraliganji (Alsaad), Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal), Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny), Roozbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal).
Saeid Ezatollahi (Amkar Perm), Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens), Mehdi Torabi (Saipa), Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), Ehsan Hajsafi (Olympiacos), Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos)
Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar), Mahdi Taremi (Al Gharafa), Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan), Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen), Saman Ghoddos (Ostersunds), Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest), Vahid Amiri (Persepolis).
SPAIN FIFA World Cup Appearances: 14 Best Place: Winners at S.Africa 2010 Possible XI: (4-3-3) Beiranvand (GK), Mohammadi (LB), Montazeri (CB), Pouraliganji (CB), Rezaeian (RB), Ebrahimi (CM), Ezatolahi (CM), Shojaei (CM), Ghoddos (LW), Taremi (ST), Jahanbakhsh (LW)
Julen Lopetegui (SPA) Age 51 A former goalkeeper, he has been at the centre of youth development in Spain for over a decade and has a Spanish squad mixed with both experienced champions, sprinkle of the next generation of talent. Five players who won the world cup in 2010 remain in the side Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Sergio Ramos, David Silva, Gerard Pique and their experience is just as important as the involvement of the younger players. Lopetegui has some questions to answer as to who he trusts most in the side. Koke, Isco and Marco Asensio are just three midfielders that will always have a chance of starting over the older generation; Iniesta may well be rested in at least one group game for one of the previously mentioned, likewise Thiago, who has started 8 out of their 10 qualifying matches isn’t immune from being dropped. Ultimately it will be down to the tactics used and the only hiccup I can see for Spain would be when they face sides that sit, defend, and wait for an opportunity to counter attack. Morocco and Iran are likely to adopt this style of play and could be a potential banana skin moment for Spain.
Andres Iniesta (125 caps / 14 goals) Age 34
One of the greatest midfielders of a generation and possibly of all time the Spanish and Barcelona man is set to compete in his 4th and final World Cup. Voted in the FIFA World XI nine times, he won the Euros in 2008 and 2012, plus the World Cup in 2010. Had it not been for the extraordinary dominance of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi he would have been huge favourite to have won the Balon D’Or at least once in his career. He will get the nod to start in midfield acting in a role slightly deeper than previous tournaments using his passing ability and vision to open up the opposition. He is a part of the jigsaw Spain will need to have a good chance of lifting the trophy again.
ONE TO WATCH...
Isco (27 caps / 10 goals) Age 26 One of Real Madrid’s stars during the last couple of seasons, Isco is a an attacking midfielder who has won 4 Champions League winners medals since joining them in 2013, once a ‘Golden Boy’ winner in 2012 this will be his first World Cup. Usually deployed on the left wing for Spain but he is as comfortable there as he would be in a central role either behind the striker or as a false nine. Lopetegui isn’t afraid to change up the tactics due to Isco’s versatility across the attacking line I can see him being as much of a fixture to the starting XI as David De Gea or Sergio Ramos.
What Spain will not want to do is show a repeat of what happened in 2014 where they were knocked out at the group stages in Brazil, a real shock, and one they will want to put to bed in Russia with a significantly better display this time around. One downside is that they don’t possess a huge amount of pace, particularly when having to chase back. Yes there is Jordi Alba and Isco on that left side but there will be a danger against those quick counters. There is also concern up top as Diego Costa only made his return debut for Atletico Madrid once the transfer back to the club was confirmed in January, and since then he has had a disappointing last 5 months of the season scoring three times in LA Liga. Other striking options include Rodrigo who notched 16 goals with Valencia in La Liga which leaves a Iago Aspas, who also had a good campaign with 22 goals at Celta, and is Spain’s inform striker within the squad. A place in the starting XI will be up for grabs come Spain’s opening game against Portugal on June 15th. I see them making it to at least the quarter finals, after that, it may be down to fitness, injuries and suspensions that could undo them.
Pepe Reina (Napoli), David de Gea (Manchester United), Kepa Arrizabalaga (Athletic Bilbao)
Nacho Fernandez, Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal (all Real Madrid), Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba (both Barcelona), Alvaro Odriozola (Real Sociedad), Nacho Monreal (Arsenal), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea)
Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets (both Barcelona), Saul Niguez, Koke (both Atletico Madrid), Isco, Marco Asensio (both Real Madrid), Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich), David Silva (Manchester City), Lucas Vazquez (Real Madrid)
Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo), Rodrigo (Valencia), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid)