Iran fight hard, but controversial draw not good enough

Iran’s players lay on the turf of the Mordovia Arena, exhausted and devastated. Through three group games they had fought desperately to escape a tough group. Now, after a pulsating, drama-filled encounter with European champions Portugal, they had failed. The final score was 1-1 in a game filled with flashes of brilliance, plenty of controversy and a number of moments that will stick in the memory. That didn’t matter for Iran. They gave their all, and they still fell agonisingly short of the last 16. Had Mehdi Taremi, one-on-one with Portuguese goalkeeper Rui Patrício deep into injury time, managed to put his shot on target instead of hitting it into the side netting, Iran would have almost certainly come away with a famous victory. He didn’t, Iran didn’t, and Portugal barely progressed from a group they were expected to cruise through.

There wasn’t too much in the way of first half excitement, as Iran replicated their defensive approach from earlier matches. Led by Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored all of Portugal’s goals in their first two matches, Portugal tried to find a way to break through the Iranian defence, but their opponents held firm and even presented a danger on the counter-attack. Early on, Portugal’s best chances were coming courtesy of Iran’s goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand, not their talismanic striker. João Mário had a chance to shoot at an open net when Beiranvand collided with teammate Saeid Ezatolahi, but he blasted his effort over the bar. Then came the bizarre scenes of Beiranvand remonstrating with his defender, with the pair nearly coming to blows. Similar issues arose for Iran in the minutes that followed, with Ricardo Quaresma testing out Beiranvand and twice drawing errors with crosses close to goal. The Iranian keeper missed one completely and let the next slip through his grasp, and after his brilliant form in Iran’s opening games the nerves seemed to be getting to him. Ronaldo, on the other hand, had been quiet, his impact limited to one shot straight at Beiranvand and a free-kick blasted straight into the wall.

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Alireza Beiranvand (in blue) saves Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty early in the second half. The save was the highlight of Beiranvand’s tournament, and it kept Iran in the game.

As the first half progressed, Beiranvand’s work became increasingly secure and Portugal’s chances began to dry up. Ronaldo was being held very effectively, and Iran looked more dangerous than the Portuguese when they found space on the break. The combination of Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Sardar Azmoun was creating problems, and Ezatolahi forced Patrício into action when he found space to head the ball goalward from a well-worked free-kick routine. Ronaldo had a chance when, seemingly out of frustration, he dropped deep into midfield and tried a shot from an impossible distance. It was on target, but Beiranvand gathered comfortably. It looked like the deadlock would remain firmly unbroken when the half time whistle blew.

Enter Quaresma. The veteran hadn’t started Portugal’s first two games, but he had an impact when inserted into the team at the expense of the talented but misfiring Bernardo Silva. Now, with Portugal needing some kind of spark to break down a very disciplined Iranian defence, it was the winger, not Ronaldo, who provided it. He played a neat one-two with Adrien Silva, struck the ball from just outside the area and curled it into the back of the net. With the outside of his right boot. It was an incredibly difficult shot made to look ridiculously easy, and it gave Portugal a crucial lead heading into half time.

Then the big moment came. Ronaldo, having been quiet, drew a foul from Ezatolahi just inside the penalty area. The penalty was initially waved away by Enrique Cáceres, but the video assistant referee stepped in and the penalty was soon given. It wasn’t the VAR’s last involvement of the evening. As Ronaldo stepped up to take the penalty, Iran were mentally preparing to go two goals down. He may have been out of sorts, but Ronaldo just doesn’t miss penalties in big moments. On the sideline, Iranian coach Carlos Queiroz (a former coach of Portugal) had already given up, throwing away his jacket in disgust and storming away from the dugout and into the rooms. Then Beiranvand, earlier looking like the weakest link, stood up. He saved the penalty, flinging himself the right way and giving Iran hope. Queiroz, presumably informed of his keeper’s feat, shamelessly returned to the bench as though nothing had happened.

Iran began to push more aggressively after Beiranvand’s moment of heroism, and the game started to descend into chaos. Players were throwing themselves to the turf left right and centre, and Quaresma found himself in Cáceres’ book when he dispensed vigilante justice on Ezatolahi for what he saw as an unpunished trip. Azmoun went down in the box, and Queiroz’s vehement appeals for VAR involvement were cut short when Cáceres moved towards the touchline. The Paraguayan referee wasn’t interested in checking for a foul, instead worrying himself with silencing Queiroz’s steady stream of protests. The Iranian coach wasn’t banished from the sideline, but he wasn’t far off it either. Then, shortly afterwards, another VAR review threatened to derail Portugal’s tournament. It concerned Ronaldo, and a clash with Morteza Pouraliganji.

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Cristiano Ronaldo (left) is shown a yellow card after a lengthy VAR review. Ronaldo, and Portugal, were slightly lucky the referee didn’t see fit to give him a red card for his challenge on Morteza Pouraliganji.

Blocked by his opponent, and presumably frustrated with the way things had gone for him, the Portuguese captain decided to push his way past forcefully. He also made slight contact with Pouraliganji’s chin, and the Iranian defender was more than willing to take advantage of the unnecessary blow. He crashed to the deck like a sack of potatoes, and Ronaldo’s slight but completely uncalled for action was suddenly under intense scrutiny from the omnipresent VAR officials. As all eyes turned to Cáceres, now rewatching the incident for himself, it was incredible just how much drama could be imbued in the moment of one man staring at a tiny screen. Concern was writ large upon Ronaldo’s face as Cáceres marched towards him to deliver his verdict. It was yellow, and all of Portugal breathed a gigantic sigh of relief.

Then they nearly got knocked out anyway, partly thanks to a bizarrely awarded penalty. Azmoun jumped for a ball into the box, and his header caught Cédric’s hand on the way through. It was an innocuous enough touch, unavoidable and clearly not deliberate. The VAR thought otherwise. After a lengthy deliberation, and another dramatic moment as Cáceres peered at the little screen, the penalty was awarded. Portugal couldn’t believe it, and were suddenly placed under immense pressure as Karim Ansarifard blasted an unstoppable penalty just under the bar. It was an incredibly difficult shot to pull off, but Ansarifard executed it perfectly, not feeling the pressure of the importance of his kick and paying no attention to how little time remained on the clock. It was, above all, a gutsy kick, and it was a perfect representation of Iran’s incredibly gutsy World Cup effort.

Saransk – Mordovia Arena
Iran 1 (Ansarifard 90+3)
Portugal 1 (Quaresma 45)
Referee: Enrique Cáceres (Par)
Iran (4-5-1): Beiranvand – Rezaeian, Hosseini, Pouraliganji, Hajsafi (Mohammadi 56); Taremi, Jahanbakhsh (Ghoddos 70), Ezatolahi (Ansarifard 76), Ebrahimi, Amiri; Azmoun.
Portugal (4-4-2): Rui Patrício – Cédric, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro; Quaresma (Bernardo Silva 69), Adrien Silva, William Carvalho, João Mário (João Moutinho 84); André Silva (Guedes 90+6), Ronaldo.

Top 5
1. Alireza Beiranvand (Iran)
Beiranvand capped off an extraordinary World Cup with a brilliant final game, saving a penalty from Ronaldo and continually frustrating the Portuguese with his solidity in goal. He started shakily but was a rock once he got going, and his massive throws forward when he collected the ball had to be seen to be believed.
2. Pepe (Portugal)
Pepe came in for criticism after a blatant dive in Portugal’s game against Morocco, and he reacted with a brilliant defensive performance. He was always there as Iran desperately tried to break through the Portuguese defence, and he made seemed to be the guy charged with clearing most of Iran’s dangerous forays forward.
3. Ricardo Quaresma (Portugal)
Quaresma gave Iran plenty of problems with his work on the right wing, starting the game by testing Beiranvand with some dangerous crosses before evolving into a more central role cutting in from the sideline. He gave Portugal the breakthrough with an effortless shot from just outside the box, and provided the spark they needed to get a result despite Ronaldo’s off-game.
4. Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Iran)
Jahanbakhsh always looked dangerous on the break, using his pace and skill to good effect. He always tracked back to do his defensive duties, and his counter-attacking combination with Azmoun created plenty of difficulties for Portugal as they looked to get past the solid Iranian defence.
5. Omid Ebrahimi (Iran)
Ebrahimi put in a huge effort all game, working hard in defence and attack and making an impact all over the field. His tireless efforts in midfield were instrumental in Iran’s defensive solidity, and he provided the consistent presence Iran needed to make an impact going forward.

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Spain toil hard to edge out determined Iranians

Euphoria. That was what Iran felt when Saeid Ezatolahi bundled a poorly defended free-kick into the bottom corner. Thanks to Spain’s errors, they had erased the one-goal lead their more skilled opponents had toiled so hard for, and they were suddenly in with a chance of shocking the Spanish and snatching a point to reinforce their opening game win over Morocco. Spain, meanwhile, couldn’t believe that after dominating possession and spending over half the game breaking through a determined Iranian defence, they had just lost the lead they had worked so hard for. Then, mere seconds after the euphoria of scoring, came despair. Ezatolahi was offside. The goal didn’t count. Thanks to the new video assistant referee, Spain’s lead was intact and Iran had to fight for another opening. They couldn’t find one.

The game started as expected, for the most part. Iran were named in a conventional 4-2-3-1 formation, but the team that took the field lined up with a six man defence and everyone else aiding the defensive effort. Generously, it could have been called a counter-attacking strategy. Realistically, Carlos Queiroz’s side was just parking the bus. Spain, on the other hand, did exactly what was expected of them. They took the free possession on offer, and kept passing it around in an attempt to break down their opponents. The only part that didn’t go to script was the scoreline. Spain were meant to clinically cut their way through their opponents, finding the back of the net at will. Instead, they found a very determined defensive front who were willing to fight for everything. As a result, the game settled into a pattern that was as repetitive as the mindless droning noise of the vuvuzelas blown by the Iranian fans. Spain would pass the ball around with impunity, but Iran would throw multiple defenders at them if they got too close.

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Morteza Pouraliganji (left) battles to keep the ball under pressure from Diego Costa. Pouraliganji had a great game and mostly kept Costa quiet, but the Spanish striker still found the scoresheet.

There were some chances, of course, but not enough to cause Iran too much stress. David Silva got close on a few occasions, blasting an athletic attempt at a set piece over the bar and watching as one of his free-kicks rebounded off the wall but didn’t deviate from its course. With the half winding down, he managed to find some space in the box, but his dangerous looking shot was blocked by the outstretched leg of Morteza Pouraliganji. At the other end, Iran gave under-fire Spanish keeper David de Gea very little to do, although they did have a great chance when Vahid Amiri was played through and had acres of space on the right wing. Unfortunately for Iran, Amiri seemed too surprised when he found himself onside in the box to actually do anything meaningful, and a tentative cross evaded everyone and went out of bounds.

Spain continued in their attempt to break down the Iranians as the second half started, and they had a couple of encouraging chances shortly after resumption. Gerard Piqué nearly found the back of the net after Isco’s dangerous corner, but there were plenty of Iranian defenders around to ensure it didn’t go in. Sergio Busquets created more problems less than a minute later, forcing Alireza Beiranvand to make an excellent save before Lucas Vázquez, following in at pace, forced the Iranian keeper to bat it away. A rare attacking foray from Iran saw Karim Ansarifard receive the ball from a long throw and drill it into the side netting, and the game was just beginning to open up a little. Not long after Iran’s near miss, Spain took the lead.

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A scrum forms on the Iranian goal line as Diego Costa (right) attempts to force the ball into the back of the net. The bizarre moment was indicative of Iran’s determination to prevent Spain from scoring.

The goal was created by Andrés Iniesta’s brilliance, and a large dose of good luck. Iniesta is almost certainly playing his last World Cup, and he can’t really play out a full game in the Spanish midfield. At the conclusion of this tournament, he will move to Japan to begin the next phase of his career. With Spain struggling to break down a determined Iranian defence, Iniesta made something happen. He picked up the ball in midfield, and started to run at the Iranian defence while firing a pass to Silva. He sprinted to receive Silva’s follow-up ball, and when a defender stood in his way he beat him without breaking a sweat. His second pass found Diego Costa in the box, and the striker spun out of trouble and looked to shoot. He never really got a shot off, with Ramin Rezaeian putting a tackle in before he could get his boot to it, but he scored anyway. Rezaeian’s tackle rebounded into Costa’s knee, and the ricochet shot past Beiranvand into the back of the net. It was a fluke, but that was of little concern to the Spanish.

Apart from Ezatolahi’s disallowed goal, the Iranians never really looked like getting the equaliser, with Spain still controlling possession and having most of the chances. Bizarre scenes ensued when Spain took a cleverly worked out corner and Sergio Ramos’ mishit shot bobbled dangerously towards the goal line, before Rezaeian lay on the goal line to stop Piqué from tapping it in. When Ezatolahi and Costa also got involved and Beiranvand tried to wrestle the ball out, a scrum developed on the Iranian goal line with the ball trapped underneath. Eventually Iran survived, but just holding on wasn’t enough. They needed to chase the game, and Mehdi Taremi had a great chance when Amiri nutmegged Piqué and sent in a brilliant cross to the dynamic forward. The header missed, and Iran’s last real opportunity went begging. Spain were still controlling possession when the final whistle sounded, happy to come away with a hard fought 1-0 win.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
Iran 0
Spain 1 (Diego Costa 54)
Referee: Andrés Cunha (Uru)
Iran (4-2-3-1): Beiranvand – Ramin Rezaeian, Hosseini, Pouraliganji, Hajsafi (Milad Mohammadi 69); Omid Ebrahimi, Ezatolahi; Ansarifard (Jahanbakhsh 74), Mehdi Taremi, Amiri (Ghoddos 86); Azmoun.
Spain (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Carvajal, Piqué, Ramos, Jordi Alba; Busquets, Iniesta (Koke 71); Silva, Isco, Lucas Vázquez (Asensio 80); Diego Costa (Rodrigo 89).

Top 5
1. Saeid Ezatolahi (Iran)
Ezatolahi was named as a defensive midfielder, but he spent the majority of the game playing as a third centre-back while Iran desperately repelled Spain’s attacks. He excelled in the role. He was a strong presence in the air and he denied Spain at crucial moments. He nearly levelled the game, but his goal was disallowed after he unluckily found himself offside.
2. Andrés Iniesta (Spain)
Iniesta didn’t play out the full 90 minutes, and he didn’t find himself on the ball as much as some of his teammates. He was, however, the man who finally drove a wedge through Iran’s disciplined defensive unit, needing to lay just two passes to set up Costa for Spain’s opening goal. He knows how to make things happen.
3. David Silva (Spain)
Silva was in excellent touch, controlling most of Spain’s attacking play and creating chances for himself and others. His set piece delivery was dangerous, as was a combination with Isco that continues to put Spain’s opponents under immense pressure. His good form bodes well for games to come.
4. Morteza Pouraliganji (Iran)
Late in the first half, Silva had an opportunity to put Spain ahead, and his shot looked destined to challenge Beiranvand. The only hitch? Pouraliganji’s outstretched leg. That challenge was just one example of Pouraliganji’s brilliant defensive work, which continued to keep them at bay for most of the match.
5. Isco (Spain)
Once again, Isco was at the heart of all of Spain’s attacking play. His set pieces were both dangerous and devious, and he threatened Iran’s defence as he drifted all over the field and beat opponents with his brilliant dribbling. His combination with Silva was as effective as ever.

Bouhaddouz howler grants Iran ugly win

The crucial early tournament game was winding towards a thoroughly dull ending. Morocco and Iran were both desperate to win and put themselves in a decent position to progress from a difficult group, but their clash, while dramatic, had descended into a bizarre mire of delays. In 95 minutes of football, neither side had scored, and neither side had looked like scoring for some time. A 0-0 draw looked likely. Enter Aziz Bouhaddouz. The striker came on as a substitute late in the second half, and from a late free-kick he gracefully dived forward and headed the ball into the bottom corner. It was a perfect diving header. Unfortunately for Bouhaddouz and Morocco, he did it at the wrong end of the field. By the final whistle a minute later, his well-intentioned defensive clearance gone wrong was the difference, and a fitting end to a very odd encounter.

Morocco shot out of the blocks, and their high-tempo passing game put the Iranians on the back foot from the word go. Iran never had a chance to get settled, as Hakim Ziyech orchestrated the attack with his clever playmaking and Nordin Amrabat put in very threatening crosses from the right wing. With the pace of Amine Harit thrown into the equation, the Atlas Lions looked too good by a long way, and it seemed a matter of time before they broke through. With nearly 20 minutes gone, a chaos ball into the box allowed four Moroccans the chance to score – in the space of seconds. Somehow, goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand and his desperate defence withstood the barrage, repelling everything, and with every passing minute Iran gained a firmer foothold in the match.

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Iranian players celebrate after their victory over Morocco. The win was sealed by a fortuitous 95th minute own goal, and Iran weren’t the better team on the day.

With Morocco’s attempts to blow them out of the water beginning to falter, Iran went on the counter-attack, continuing to concede the lion’s share of possession but finding some speed on the break. Benatia and Saïss mostly held firm in the Moroccan defence, but the tide had begun to turn. At one point Karim El Ahmadi was forced into a professional foul that was so blatant that trigger-happy referee Cüneyt Çakır seemingly had his yellow card out before the offence was completed. Morocco continued to push going the other way, but they were nowhere near as threatening as before and they struggled with an opponent capable of punishing them at the other end. As the half drew to a close, Sardar Azmoun had a brilliant chance to put his side in front, but Munir El Kajoui was up to the task, pulling off two reflex saves and maintaining the deadlock.

Unlike the first half, where Morocco started with pace and skill and put the Iranians on the back foot, the second half began more evenly. Play soon settled into a fairly mundane pattern, with plenty of physicality in the contest and neither side really looking like breaking through. Then it just became a bizarre spectacle of fouls, injuries and mediocre attacking play, with Çakır seemingly the busiest man on the field as he darted in to defuse situation after situation.

Nordin Amrabat was the first man to join the casualty list after he hit the Krestovsky Stadium turf hard and got up groggily. Water was promptly sprayed in his face, but the slightly bizarre treatment didn’t seem to work and he was shortly replaced by his brother Sofyan. Next, Iran’s Omid Ebrahimi decided the pain of an earlier rib injury was too great, and soon they were joined on the bench by Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who appeared to go down with a simple case of cramp but was soon being taken off in a stretcher. Jahanbakhsh’s replacement, Saman Ghoddos, had committed a pair of fouls within minutes of entering the fray, and soon tensions were flaring on the benches. A clash between coaches Hervé Renard and Carlos Queiroz (whose brooding stare was rather intimidating) just added to the bizarre incidents of the day. In spite of it all, Ziyech provided the only real chance of the half with an excellent volley which was brilliantly parried by Beiranvand. It was a rare touch of class in an otherwise unedifying spectacle.

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The benches of Iran and Morocco clash during the latter stages of the match. There was plenty of tension throughout, largely due to the importance of the fixture and the physicality of the game.

Bouhaddouz’s own goal, with too little time remaining for the Atlas Lions to recoup the deficit, settled the matter in Iran’s favour, but it was hardly a conclusive victory in a game that neither team deserved to win. Realistically, Morocco’s chances aren’t great following their heartbreaking defeat, and Iran will need to improve big time if they are to take advantage of a very fortunate win. It was ugly, at times comical and won in injury time by a team who didn’t have a shot in the second half. What more could you want?

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Morocco 0
Iran 1 (Bouhaddouz 90+5 og)
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (Tur)
Morocco (3-4-3): Munir El Kajoui – Hakimi, Benatia, Saïss; Boussoufa, Ziyech, El Ahmadi, Harit (da Costa 82); N Amrabat (S Amrabat 76), El Kaabi (Bouhaddouz 77), Belhanda.
Iran (3-4-3): Beiranvand – Ramin Rezaeian, Cheshmi, Pouraliganji; Ansarifard, Omid Ebrahimi (Montazeri 79), Hajsafi, Shojaei (Mehdi Taremi 68); Jahanbakhsh (Ghoddos 85), Sardar Azmoun, Amiri.

Top 5
1. Hakim Ziyech (Morocco)
Ziyech may have ended up on the losing side, but he was a class above everyone else on the field. His creative instincts were excellent, and he picked out incisive passes while simultaneously working his way into dangerous positions. His low volley was only just thwarted by Beiranvand in the Iranian goal, and could have easily found its way into the back of the net.
2. Alireza Beiranvand (Iran)
Beiranvand kept Iran in it with a series of excellent saves as they battled to keep pace with the Moroccans. He showed good composure under pressure, and his diving save to prevent Ziyech’s volley from finding the bottom corner kept Iran in the match. Without him, there is no way that they would have come away with the victory.
3. Nordin Amrabat (Morocco)
Before he left the field with what looked like a concussion Amrabat was among the best players on the field, making plenty of raids down the right flank and putting in dangerous crosses with either foot. In addition to his attacking exploits he played an important defensive role for the Atlas Lions, and his injury was a major blow to their chances.
4. Ehsan Hajsafi (Iran)
Hajsafi worked hard in midfield all day, and he was rewarded when his free-kick was inadvertently headed home by Bouhaddouz. He played an important defensive role, and was critical in repelling some of Morocco’s best attacks. His long throws also provided Iran with a fairly potent attacking weapon, rounding out a fairly solid match.
5. Medhi Benatia (Morocco)
Benatia led from the front at the heart of Morocco’s defence, winning most aerial duels he was involved in and providing a solid base which allowed the Atlas Lions to put pressure on the Iranian defence. He fought hard all day, and he showed how valuable he is to this Moroccan side.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Final Prediction

Who will win the World Cup? As ever, it’s a complicated question, and much of the fascination of the tournament is watching the drama play out. When assessing the 32 teams’ respective chances to take home the ultimate prize, it becomes clear that these sides can be grouped based on their levels of ambition. At the top, the main contenders are set to be the ones battling it out at the end. They are the teams who historically win the tournament, and will set victory as their goal coming in. Then there’s the second-tier, or the dark horses who have a legitimate chance of winning if things fall their way. They are more consistent performers, with quality to match anyone. The wildcards are the teams that could make it as far as the semi-finals and are capable of pulling off a big upset, while the knockout hopefuls are the largely unspectacular sides setting their sights on the round of 16. The early exiters round out the competition, being the teams with no realistic chance of winning and slim hopes of progressing past the second round. This preview will touch on all of these groups, before eventually predicting the winner of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The Contenders

Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain
Thanks to the non-qualification of Italy, and a number of other factors, the usual suspects may be a bit thin on the ground in Russia. Germany will always be there at the end, as will Brazil, and both sides should be considered the top favourites going into the tournament. France are the third of the contenders with a very good chance of taking home the trophy, and their quality is undeniable. Then there’s Argentina and Spain, both of whom may struggle at the tournament after distracted preparations. Argentina’s decision to cancel a pre-tournament friendly against Israel not only left them underdone but also created a diplomatic incident. Meanwhile, Spain’s decision to sack their coach two days out from the tournament is certain to impact their results, and they will now do well to escape from a tough group.

The Dark Horses

Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
With so few of the main contenders still primed for a deep run, the door may be open for one of these sides to sneak in and buck the trend. Belgium and Poland are strong, but their runs may be hindered by the draw. If one doesn’t win their group, they may find themselves facing off in the second round. Even if Belgium, as expected, win Group G and the Poles take out Group H, quarter-final dates with Brazil (for Belgium) and Germany (for Poland) would probably finish them off. Uruguay and Portugal are probably best placed to take advantage of Spain’s woes, and both are consistent teams who are capable of going a long way.

The Wildcards

Colombia, Croatia, Egypt, England, Iceland, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal
Three of these wildcards are in Group D, where a vulnerable Argentina means that Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria are not a bad chance of taking them out. Of the three, the Croatians are probably the most damaging. They are as good, if not better than, the Argentinians, and could easily pry them out of top spot. Of course, everything could fall in a heap as well, especially with their off-field concerns, but a semi-final run is not out of the question. Nigeria and Senegal are both in tough groups where they will either thrive or crash out, while Egypt could also make a splash if they can overcome Mohamed Salah’s injury issues. The turmoil surrounding Spain leaves Morocco with a chance of edging them out, and they may be a tough opponent in the knockouts. The same can be said for Iceland, and the English are unpredictable – and dangerous.

The Knockout Hopefuls

Denmark, Mexico, Peru, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland
These teams come from just three groups, and are in competition with each other. As a general rule, they shouldn’t make too much of a splash. The Swiss are the best of the teams in terms of ranking and consistency, but they may face stiff competition if Serbia are on their game. In Group C, Denmark and Peru will be an intriguing early match-up, while Mexico and Sweden are likely to fight it out for second place in Group F. None of these teams have much of a chance of winning it all, but they should be looking at the round of 16 as a realistic goal.

The Early Exiters

Australia, Costa Rica, Iran, Japan, Panama, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Tunisia
To put it bluntly, these teams have no hope of winning the World Cup, and they will probably be out by the round of 16. Iran are the most talented of them, but their position in a tough group with Spain, Portugal and Morocco means progress is unlikely. Of course, Spain’s issues may leave the door open, but Morocco seem better suited to take the opportunity. The Russians are hosting the event, and of these teams they are most likely to go through. They just aren’t a very good team, however, and they’d do well to get to the second round. Australia and South Korea may just slip past their opposition and take a berth in the knockout stages, while Saudi Arabia could give their campaign a big boost with an opening game win over Russia. Costa Rica will struggle to repeat their quarter-final run of 2014, especially after declining in quality, and Tunisia’s placement alongside Belgium and England is likely to cut short their participation. Japan have plenty of off-field issues, and they will struggle in a tough group. Bringing up the rear is Panama, who are clearly the least-talented team at this tournament and will do well to bring home a point.

Looking through the draw based on my predicted outcomes for each group (with Group B changed to reflect the likelihood of Portugal finishing above Spain), the second round will consist of matches between Uruguay and Spain, Portugal and Egypt, France and Argentina, Croatia and Denmark, Brazil and Mexico, Germany and Switzerland, Belgium and Colombia and Poland and England. With these clashes in mind, Portugal, Croatia, Brazil and Germany should win fairly comfortably. Poland are too good for England, and Belgium should beat Colombia (although a match between the two would be great to watch). France are too good for Argentina, and Uruguay should be too good for Spain, if La Furia Roja even make it that far. According to these results, the quarter-finals will see Uruguay play France, Portugal take on Croatia, Brazil go up against Belgium and Germany face Poland. Once again, Brazil and Germany should be too strong, as should the French. The last match-up is an intriguing one. Croatia are probably more talented than the Portuguese, and would start as favourites, but it would be a close-run affair. In the semis, the Germans would be likely to defeat the Croatians fairly comfortably, although a mouth-watering match-up between France and Brazil shapes as one of the games of the tournament. In the end, I think France’s talent will win out in the end, and I think that Les Bleus will take out the World Cup over the Germans. One thing’s for sure: with the World Cup, you just never know. Right now, with the fun beginning in a little over 12 hours, the whole tournament is a complete mystery. Let’s hope it stays pretty mysterious right to the end.

Predictions

Champions: France
Runners-up: Germany
Third Place: Brazil
Fourth Place: Croatia
Quarter-finals: Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
Round of 16: Argentina, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, England, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland
Top scorer: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Golden Ball: Neymar (Brazil)

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group B

Group B

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Portugal (4), Spain (10), Morocco (41), Iran (37)
Fixtures:
Morocco vs Iran, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg
Portugal vs Spain, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
Portugal vs Morocco, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Iran vs Spain, Kazan Arena, Kazan
Iran vs Portugal, Mordovia Arena, Saransk
Spain vs Morocco, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad

Portugal

Head Coach: Fernando Santos
Captain: Cristiano Ronaldo
Previous Appearances: 6 (1966, 1986, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Third Place (1966)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group B
Qualification Top Scorer: Cristiano Ronaldo (15)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Rui Patricio (Sporting), 12. Anthony Lopes (Lyon), 22. Beto (Göztepe).
Defenders: 2. Bruno Alves (Rangers), 3. Pepe (Beşiktaş), 5. Raphaël Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund), 6. José Fonte (Dalian Yifang), 13. Rúben Dias (Benfica), 15. Ricardo Pereira (Porto), 19. Mário Rui (Napoli), 21. Cédric (Southampton).
Midfielders: 4. Manuel Fernandes (Lokomotiv Moscow), 8. João Moutinho (Monaco), 10. João Mário (West Ham United), 14. William Carvalho (Sporting), 16. Bruno Fernandes (Sporting), 23. Adrien Silva (Leicester City).
Forwards: 7. Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), 9. André Silva (Milan), 11. Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), 17. Gonçalo Guedes (Valencia), 18. Gelson Martins (Sporting), 20. Ricardo Quaresma (Beşiktaş).

Portugal only sealed their spot in Russia on the final day of qualifying, beating Switzerland 2-0 and leapfrogging them to take out first place in the group. Portugal’s nine-match qualifying win streak (after losing their first game) came on the back of victory at Euro 2016, their biggest footballing achievement. The defensive solidity they showed in winning the Euros was a change from Portuguese teams of years gone by, and in Cristiano Ronaldo they can rely on a striker who knows how to find the back of the net. Since their triumph at Euro 2016, Ronaldo has been joined up front by young star André Silva, and the pair’s combined 24 goals in qualifying should sound a warning to opponents at the World Cup. Around the ground, the core group of players who won the Euros are mostly intact. João Mário, William Carvalho and Adrien Silva are versatile midfield options who will combine well, and newcomers Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva are both talented players. Pepe will lead a defence that conceded just four goals in qualifying, and Portugal can rely on his experience and quality in Russia. In goal, Rui Patricio is one of the best in the business, making Portugal a very tough team to beat.

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Cristiano Ronaldo lifts the trophy as Portugal celebrate their victory at Euro 2016. Portugal had not won a major tournament before the Euros, despite a number of near-misses.

The Euro 2016 victory, however, cannot obscure some of the issues with the Portuguese team. When Ronaldo isn’t playing well Portugal tend to lose, and this over-reliance on him could prove problematic against top-level sides. Ronaldo and André Silva may have been dominant in qualifying, but a dearth of quality back-up options meant that just 8 goals were scored by their teammates. There is also a lack of quality providers within the side, especially with veteran Ricardo Quaresma being deployed as an impact player off the bench. The defence is basically the same as it was at Euro 2016, but centre-backs Pepe (35), Bruno Alves (36) and José Fonte (34) are all two years older and past their respective primes. With left-back Raphaël Guerreiro struggling to get on the pitch due to injuries and other key players in João Mário and Adrien Silva coming off poor individual seasons, the Portuguese are not as strong as they were two years ago and could be vulnerable.

Star Player: Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo is arguably the best player in world football right now, and his record for both club and country is exemplary. He is a five time winner of the Ballon d’Or, and his ability to find the back of the net is almost unparalleled. He is fast and skilful, and his ability to score in the air was shown by his remarkable bicycle kick goal in the Champions League against Juventus. He has provided Portugal with a reliable outlet for years, and he is likely to continue in Russia.

Key Player: Pepe

Ronaldo is the undisputed star of the Portuguese team, but Pepe is arguably just as important. The combative centre-back has collected 91 caps since making his debut in 2007, and was one of Portugal’s best performers as they won the Euros. He will reprise his role as the anchor of the defence in Russia, and his performances will play a big role in dictating Portugal’s finish.

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Cristiano Ronaldo (right) and André Silva celebrate after Ronaldo’s goal against Andorra during qualifying. Ronaldo and Silva formed a devastating partnership in the qualifiers, netting 24 goals between them.

One to watch: André Silva

Silva made his international debut in Portugal’s first match after Euro 2016 (an insignificant friendly against Gibraltar), and it didn’t take him long to strike up a formidable partnership with Ronaldo. He has since moved to Milan, and after a poor first season with the Italian giants he will be looking to showcase his immense talent with some strong performances in Russia. He has the skills to make a huge mark.

Verdict

Fernando Santos has instilled some solidity into his charges, and with Ronaldo and Silva at one end and Pepe and Patricio at the other Portugal will be a very tough customer. They could win it all, if the rest of their team steps up.
Likely Team (4-4-2): Rui Patricio; Cédric, Pepe, Bruno Alves, Guerreiro; Bernardo Silva, William Carvalho, Adrien Silva, João Mário; André Silva, Ronaldo.

Spain

Head Coach: Julen Lopetegui
Captain: Sergio Ramos
Previous Appearances: 14 (1934, 1950, 1962, 1966, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (2010)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group G
Qualification Top Scorer: Diego Costa, Isco, Álvaro Morata, David Silva (5)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. David de Gea (Manchester United), 13. Kepa Arrizabalaga (Athletic Bilbao), 23. Pepe Reina (Napoli).
Defenders: 2. Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid), 3. Gerard Piqué (Barcelona), 4. Nacho (Real Madrid), 12. Álvaro Odriozola (Real Sociedad), 14. César Azpilicueta (Chelsea), 15. Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), 16. Nacho Monreal (Arsenal), 18. Jordi Alba (Barcelona).
Midfielders: 5. Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), 6. Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona), 7. Saúl Ñiguez (Atlético Madrid), 8. Koke (Atlético Madrid), 10. Thiago (Bayern Munich), 20. Marco Asensio (Real Madrid), 21. David Silva (Manchester City), 22. Isco (Real Madrid).
Forwards: 9. Rodrigo (Valencia), 11. Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo), 17. Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid), 19. Diego Costa (Atlético Madrid).

After a disastrous performance at the last World Cup and an underwhelming effort at Euro 2016, there’s a lot to like about this Spanish side heading into the World Cup. New coach Julen Lopetegui led his side through a flawless qualifying campaign, and their previously ageing core has been rejuvenated with some fresh talent. In goal, David de Gea has been solid as a rock, conceding just 3 times in qualifying. He will be well protected by the experienced defensive pairing of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué, while full-backs Jordi Alba and Dani Carvajal are capable in both attack and defence. Spain’s real strength, however, comes from a midfield that oozes quality. Andrés Iniesta is a legend of the game, and although this is almost certainly his last World Cup he is still capable of performing at the highest level. Alongside Iniesta, Lopetegui can call on quality creators in Koke, David Silva and Isco, and Sergio Busquets is a holding midfielder who can tie any side together. Spain’s silky smooth passing is likely to be a feature of their play, and it should make them a formidable opponent.

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Isco scores from a free kick in a World Cup qualifier against Italy. Isco was one of Spain’s equal top-scorers during qualifying, and knows how to find the back of the net from midfield.

On the flip side, the Spanish are still plagued by their lack of a genuine target up front, which can make it difficult for them to translate their possession into goals. All of their midfielders are capable of finding their way onto the scoresheet, which is a bonus, but no player scored more than five goals in qualifying and it’s not clear who they will look to when in desperate need of a goal. Diego Costa is likely to get the first run, and Iago Aspas, Rodrigo and young gun Marco Asensio provide options, but none of them are proven goal-scorers at international level, a fact which could prove problematic. The Spanish are favoured to go a long way in Russia, but the same thing has been said at their last two major tournaments, and they have underwhelmed with little explanation why. If they are to make a deep run, Lopetegui will need to get his side performing at their peak.

Star Player: David de Gea

There are any number of very good midfielders who could fill this space, but de Gea is a more integral part of Spain’s team. He has been named in the Premier League’s Team of the Year five times in the last six seasons, and he holds a very strong claim to the title of best goalkeeper in the world. His ability to pull off extraordinary saves and keep out the best in the world will give Spain plenty of confidence.

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Sergio Ramos attempts to control the ball during Euro 2016. Ramos is not the prettiest player going around, but he is a very effective defender who has enjoyed plenty of success.

Key Player: Sergio Ramos

Ramos is not a particularly pretty footballer. He is a very physical defender who often dives for free kicks and has been in hot water for a number of incidents. Basically, he is the antithesis of Spain’s beautiful possession game. He is, however, the counterpoint Spain need, marshalling the defence and occasionally popping up to score big goals in big games. He knows how to stand up in big moments, and importantly for Spain, he knows how to win.

One to watch: Marco Asensio

Asensio has the potential to become one of the world’s best, and at just 22 his best years are still ahead of him. He has established himself as an impact player within the Real Madrid set-up, and is likely to be used in the same capacity in Russia. His versatility means he may well be called upon to solve Spain’s problems in attack, and he is a quality player who will be exciting to watch.

Verdict

Spain’s side looks unstoppable on paper, but the pressure of a World Cup is another thing entirely. It’s hard to see how they will fail to progress from the group stage, and they look like they can go a long way.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Carvajal, Ramos, Piqué, Alba; Busquets, Koke; David Silva, Isco, Iniesta; Diego Costa.

Morocco

Head Coach: Hervé Renard
Captain: Medhi Benatia
Previous Appearances: 4 (1970, 1986, 1994, 1998)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (1986)
Qualified: CAF, 1st Group C
Qualification Top Scorer: Khalid Boutaïb (4)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Yassine Bounou (Girona), 12. Munir Mohamedi (Numancia), 22. Ahmed Reda Tagnaouti (IR Tanger).
Defenders: 2. Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid), 3. Hamza Mendyl (Lille), 4. Manuel da Costa (İstanbul Başakşehir), 5. Medhi Benatia (Juventus), 6. Romain Saïss (Wolverhampton Wanderers), 17. Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahçe).
Midfielders: 7. Hakim Ziyech (Ajax), 8. Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), 10. Younès Belhanda (Galatasaray), 11. Fayçal Fajr (Getafe), 14. Mbark Boussoufa (Al-Jazira), 15. Youssef Aït Bennasser (Caen), 16. Nordin Amrabat (Leganés), 18. Amine Harit (Schalke), 21. Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord), 23. Mehdi Carcela-González (Standard Liège).
Forwards: 9. Ayoub El Kaabi (RS Berkane), 13. Khalid Boutaïb (Yeni Malatyaspor), 19. Youssef En-Nesyri (Málaga), 20. Aziz Bouhaddouz (St Pauli).

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Hervé Renard congratulates experienced midfielder Karim El Ahmadi during a friendly against the Netherlands. Renard has transformed the Atlas Lions since taking over in 2016, having previously enjoyed success with Zambia and the Côte d’Ivoire.

Morocco’s first World Cup qualification since 1998 was based on a stellar defensive record (they conceded no goals in the final group stage) and a 2-0 final day win to qualify at the expense of the Côte d’Ivoire. Hervé Renard is a highly-respected coach who has helped a previously faltering team unearth its potential, and Morocco have the defensive steel required to spring an upset. Romain Saïss’ move from the midfield into central defence has allowed him to form an excellent partnership with Juventus’ Medhi Benatia, and Real Madrid young gun Achraf Hakimi has the ability to play on either side of the defence as required. In Karim El Ahmadi and Mbark Boussoufa, Renard has a pair of experienced and skilled central midfielders. Younès Belhanda, Fayçal Fajr, Nordin Amrabat and Sofyan Amrabat can all complement the creative abilities of Hakim Ziyech to provide plenty of chances. Ziyech has the potential to be a big surprise packet in Russia, and his quality is undisputed.

Morocco’s biggest problems come from the draw which placed them alongside European powerhouses Spain and Portugal. As good as their team spirit may be, their players are no match for some of their opponents, and they could find their issues exposed. First-choice goalkeeper Munir Mohamedi played just one game for second-tier Spanish side Numancia over the course of this season, and he could struggle given his lack of game time. They may struggle for goals given the lack of a top-quality target, although Khalid Boutaïb has found some form in recent times. Their experienced players in defence and midfield are a strength, but many key players are past their primes. Against more skilful opponents Renard’s men may find it difficult to keep control of the ball, and if they are playing with their backs to the wall they may find it tough. All of this will combine to ensure the Atlas Lions will be in for a very tough fight as they look to beat the odds in Russia.

Star Player: Hakim Ziyech

Ziyech could have been a Dutch representative instead of a Moroccan one, and Renard will be counting his lucky stars that he inherited a squad with the talented playmaker. Ziyech can play anywhere behind the sole striker, and he is a technically skilled player who can create chances and find the back of the net himself. He has been one of the best players in the Dutch league for some time, and will be a key part of Morocco’s campaign.

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Hakim Ziyech takes on an opponent during an African Cup of Nations qualifier against São Tomé and Príncipe. Ziyech will be a key part of Morocco’s plans at the World Cup. 

Key Player: Medhi Benatia

Benatia is Morocco’s most experienced defender, having played for European giants Bayern Munich and Juventus among others. This experience playing with and against the world’s best will be invaluable for Renard’s side, and Benatia’s leadership and quality defensive work will be incredibly important if the Atlas Lions are going to make it out of a tough group.

One to watch: Achraf Hakimi

Hakimi is a versatile full-back who will be looking to make his mark coming off a promising campaign with Real Madrid. He is likely to play right-back for the Atlas Lions in Russia, but the 19-year-old is equally capable on the left and can make an impact going forward. He is one of Morocco’s biggest talents, and his experiences playing with the world’s best should serve him well.

Verdict

It would take a miracle for Morocco to progress past the group stage, but Renard’s determined unit cannot be underestimated and could be a tough opponent. If they get through they could do some damage.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Munir Mohamedi; Hakimi, Benatia, Saïss, Mendyl; El Ahmadi, Boussoufa; N Amrabat, Belhanda, Ziyech; Boutaïb.

Iran

Head Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Captain: Masoud Shojaei
Previous Appearances: 4 (1978, 1998, 2006, 2014)
Best Finish: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2006, 2014)
Qualified: AFC, 1st Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Sardar Azmoun (11)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis), 12. Mohammad Rashid Mazahedi (Zob Ahan), 22. Amir Abedzadeh (Marítimo).
Defenders: 4. Rouzbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal), 5. Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny), 8. Morteza Pouraliganji (Al-Sadd), 13. Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), 15. Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal), 19. Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), 23. Ramin Rezaeian (Oostende).
Midfielders: 2. Mehdi Torabi (Saipa), 3. Ehsan Hajsafi (Olympiacos), 6. Saeid Ezatolahi (Amkar Perm), 7. Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens), 9. Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), 11. Vahid Amiri (Persepolis), 21. Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest).
Forwards: 10. Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos), 14. Saman Ghoddos (Östersund), 16. Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen), 17. Mehdi Taremi (Al-Gharafa), 18. Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ), 20. Sardar Azmoun (Rostov).

If they hadn’t been drawn into a group with Portugal and Spain, the Iranians would go into this tournament feeling confident. As it stands, Iran are not likely to make it to the knockout stages for the first time in their history, but they will field a strong side. The Iranians built their comfortable qualification around defensive frugality, conceding just twice in the final stage of Asian qualifying. It is their attack, however, which has seen the most improvement since their failed World Cup campaign four years ago. Alireza Jahanbakhsh was the leading goal-scorer in the Netherlands this season, and Sardar Azmoun has regularly found the back of the net in national colours. Saman Ghoddos, Mehdi Taremi and Karim Ansarifard have all enjoyed stellar seasons, but such is Iran’s attacking depth that at least one of them will miss out on a spot in the starting line-up. Down back, Carlos Queiroz can call on some quality defenders, and goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand is a solid presence. Iran have plenty of experience, which should serve them well.

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Morteza Pouraliganji chases the ball during Iran’s World Cup qualifying match against South Korea. Pouraliganji was a key part of Iran’s solid defence in qualifying.

Unfortunately for Queiroz, Iran’s tough draw makes progress from the group stage unlikely. The teams they will face in Russia are a big step up from the teams they comfortably saw off in qualifying, and their disciplined defence will face a much sterner test. That they will be facing it without the experience of Jalal Hosseini, who failed to make the cut, only makes their task harder. Iran’s attack has improved in both depth and quality, but for all their talent they only managed 10 goals in the final 10 games of qualifying. Azmoun is the only member of the side who has regularly performed at an international level, and Queiroz will be relying on Jahanbakhsh and others to fulfil their potential for their country. The midfield is not as strong as it could be, especially with an injury to Ali Karimi, and the Iranians will need to be careful to avoid being dominated in the middle of the park.

Star Player: Sardar Azmoun

Jahanbakhsh could be considered the star after his breakout season in Europe, but Azmoun’s performances for Iran since making his debut in 2014 have placed him at the forefront of the national team’s success. He has aerial ability and skill, and in his brief forays into the Champions League with Rostov he matched up well against top-level competition. He is a class player, and Iran will hope he can show it.

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Alireza Jahanbakhsh (left), Sardar Azmoun (centre) and Mehdi Taremi celebrate after Taremi’s qualifying goal against Qatar. The three forwards are just some of the attacking options Iran have at their disposal, and Azmoun and Jahanbakhsh’s input will be especially important.

Key Player: Ashkan Dejagah

Iran have plenty of attacking weapons at their disposal, but such talent is meaningless if they get no supply. That’s where Dejagah, an experienced player who has featured in the Bundesliga and the Premier League, steps in. He has been hampered by injuries in the last couple of seasons, but if Iran are to progress he will need to create plenty of opportunities from the space behind Azmoun.

One to watch: Saman Ghoddos

Ghoddos was born and raised in Sweden, and even made his international debut for the Swedish national team before deciding to play for Iran. He has plenty of talent and skill, and attracted the attention of a number of English clubs with a brilliant performance against Arsenal in the Europa League knockouts. Facing the best after the anonymity of the Swedish league will be a challenge, but he could make an impact.

Verdict

Iran have gained some quality attacking talent, but they will need to turn that into goals against tough opposition if they are to progress. It’s an uphill battle for Queiroz, and his side will need to play out of their skin.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Beiranvand; Rezaiean, Montazeri, Pouraliganji, Mohammadi; Hajsafi, Shojaei; Jahanbakhsh, Dejagah, Ghoddos; Azmoun.

Prediction

This group seems open-and-shut: the Spanish and the Portuguese simply have too much quality for Morocco and Iran. That may well be the case, but games within the group, such as the hotly-anticipated clash between Iberian rivals Portugal and Spain, could be very competitive Furthermore, it would not be beyond either the Moroccans or the Iranians to pinch a couple of points and make things very interesting. Portugal seem especially vulnerable heading into Russia, and a well-organised team (as all in this group are) could just sneak past them.
1. Spain, 2. Portugal, 3. Morocco, 4. Iran

AFC Asian Cup Preview

On Friday the 9th of January the Asian Cup starts in Australia. This year there are many teams that could take home the crown, and the competition is set to be fiercer than ever. In this preview I will look … Continue reading

World Cup Preview – Group F

Group F

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Argentina (3), Bosnia and Herzegovina (21), Iran (45), Nigeria (31)
Fixtures:
Argentina vs Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rio de Janeiro
Iran vs Nigeria, Curitiba
Argentina vs Iran, Belo Horizonte
Nigeria vs Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cuiaba
Nigeria vs Argentina, Porto Alegre
Bosnia and Herzegovina vs Iran, Salvador

Argentina

Coach: Alejandro Sabella
Captain: Lionel Messi
World Cup Appearances: 15 (1930, 1934, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1978, 1982,1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Champions (1978, 1986)
Qualified: 1st in CONMEBOL qualifying
Qualification Top Scorer: Lionel Messi (10)

Form Guide


Argentina cruised to qualification for the world cup, finishing at the top of the CONMEBOL section with only 2 losses (one of which came in the last game against Uruguay after qualification had been sealed). The team has played in every world cup since 1974 and have been in the top 10 of the world for quite a long time.

Strengths

The Argentinian attack, led by Barcelona star Lionel Messi, is arguably the best in the world. The fact that Alejandro Sabella did not select in-form Juventus star Carlos Tevez speaks volumes about the strength of an attack which contains players such as Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero. These players complement Messi, a 4-time Ballon d’Or winner, and the attack will be ably supported by wingers Ezequiel Lavezzi and Angel Di Maria. Javier Mascherano brings experience and versatility to the team and he will be helped by players like Fernando Gago, Lucas Biglia and Ever Banega to control the centre of midfield.

Weaknesses


The Argentinian team may be one of the strongest when it comes to attack, but they may struggle in defence. First-choice goalkeepers Sergio Romero and Mariano Andujar have not had much game time at Monaco and Catania respectively, and this is worrying if they are looking to have some match practice going into the world cup. The defence is reasonable but not extremely experienced at this level, with the most experienced, Martin Demichelis, facing a struggle to make the first team against younger centre-backs such as Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernandez, as well as Hugo Campagnaro.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Coach: Safet Susic
Captain: Emir Spahic
World Cup Appearances: None
Best Result: N/A
Qualified: 1st Group G
Qualification Top Scorer: Edin Dzeko (10)

Form Guide

Bosnia and Herzegovina qualified for their first major tournament in style, blitzing Group G to finish first with an astonishing 30 goals scored at an average of 3 a game. The campaign included some massive victories, including an 8-1 away win over Liechtenstein, as well as a 5-0 drubbing of Latvia as well as 4-1 home wins against both.

Strengths


As one would expect from such a prolific goal scoring team, the Bosnians are extremely strong in attack. Led by Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic, who contributed 18 goals between them over qualification, the Bosnians scored the fourth most goals of any side during UEFA qualification. The midfield is also strong, and players like Zvjezdan Misimovic and Miralem Pjanic contribute well to the scoreboard. The defence is also strong, led by Leverkusen centre-back Emir Spahic and Stoke City goakeeper Asmir Begovic.

Weaknesses

While the first team line-up is strong, the side lacks depth. This means that if any injuries were to occur the side would struggle to fill the void. While in their respective top divisions many players play at slightly weaker clubs, with Manchester City star Dzeko the main exception. Apart from Spahic the defence is lacking experience, with the other 8 defenders named averaging just 9 caps each, and 5 players falling below this average. This inexperience may also affect the midfield, which also struggles to strike the right balance between experience and youth.

Iran

Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Captain: Javad Nekounam
World Cup Appearances: 3 (1978, 1998, 2006)
Best Result: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2006)
Qualified: 1st Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Javad Nekounam (6)

Form Guide

Iran cruised through the second round of AFC qualifying, beating the Maldives 4-0 and 1-0 to progress easily. The Iranians only lost three more times in 14 games to qualify comfortably enough. Both qualification and first place were achieved in the final match against Korea Republic in Ulsan.

Strengths

The Iranians are very experienced, with players such as Javad Nekounam, Jalal Hosseini, Andranik Teymourian and Mohammad Reza Khalatbari having represented their country on numerous occasions. The side also has some good young players coming up, however, with Ashkan Dejagah, Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Reza Ghoochannejhad all young and starting to get opportunities in Europe, as with Braunschweig goalkeeper Daniel Davari. In defence Ehsan Hajsafi has 60 caps at the age of 24, and he has a bright future ahead of him.

Weaknesses

A majority of the Iranian players play in the relatively weak Iranian league, and this means they will struggle when faced up with sides like Argentina who are of the highest order. No members of the squad will have had much experience facing up against such opposition, and this is also a concern. The side also lacks a striker who can score goals. Karim Ansarifad, who has been the first-choice for a while, averages 1 goal every 5 games. On this form he would struggle to score during the tournament, and this is a major concern for a side drawn into a tough group.

Nigeria

Coach: Stephen Keshi
Captain: Vincent Enyeama
World Cup Appearances: 4 (1994, 1998, 2002, 2010)
Best Result: Round of 16 (1994, 1998)
Qualified: 1st Group F, went on to defeat Ethiopia in play-off
Qualification Top Scorer: Emmanuel Emenike (3)

Form Guide

Nigeria were drawn into an easy group containing Mali, Kenya and Namibia, and progressed without losing a game. For the play-offs they were drawn against Ethiopia, and two goals from Emmanuel Emenike gave them a 2-1 away victory and the upper hand. They then won 2-0 at home to gain qualification.

Strengths

The Nigerian side is first rate, with Premier League star John Obi Mikel leading the charge. Victor Moses has been given more chances while on loan at Liverpool and he will form an effective partnership on the wings with Ahmed Musa. Players like Peter Odemwingie, Victor Obinna and Emmanuel Emenike will form a great attack, and Joseph Yobo will provide experience and solidity in defence. He will be ably assisted by players such as Elderson and Efe Ambrose, while captain and goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama is in great form with Lille and will provide support.

Weaknesses

While the midfield in the first-team will be quite strong, the rest of the midfield will be quite inexperienced. Apart from Mikel, who has 57 caps, the next most experienced midfielder is Sunday Mba with 21. Another issue with the side is balance between experience and youth, with a lot of young players and quite a few old players. There are a few players such as Elderson, Ambrose or Mikel who fit this bracket, but I don’t think that there are enough of those players in the side.

My Predictions

This will be a good group to watch, but Argentina should win easily. I would expect Nigeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina to challenge for the second spot. Look out for the game between Argentina and Nigeria, as the two have faced off in three of Nigeria’s four world cups.
1. Argentina, 2. Nigeria, 3. Bosnia and Herzegovina, 4. Iran
Next: I look at Group G, which will be one of the most exciting groups in the tournament.