2018 FIFA World Cup Review

It’s all over. A brilliant World Cup filled with excitement has ended with France taking their second World Cup title as many of football’s traditional giants crashed out earlier than expected. A semi-final line-up without Germany, Brazil, Spain and Argentina was certainly unexpected, but the teams that came through in their place delivered plenty of excitement and some quality performances. England looked a rejuvenated side under Gareth Southgate, and Belgium’s best ever side looked very dangerous on their way to the final four. Croatia had a dream run through to the final, showing resolve, skill and plenty of verve as they slugged it out with the consistent French in the tournament’s decider. It was a tournament full of excitement, and plenty of good memories will come from it. This review will take a look at the tournament, with the players and teams that impressed and the teams whose campaigns fell flat.

Best Team: France

It’s not often that a team wins the trophy as comfortably as the French did. They only trailed their opponents at one point during the tournament, with Argentina leading them 2-1 for less than 10 minutes. France then scored three goals in about 10 minutes, and that finished the Argentinians off. Everyone played well, with scarily young players standing tall (19-year-old winger Kylian Mbappé was particularly impressive) and all of France’s proven performers delivering when they needed to. They scored first in every game they played, and they breezed past some very dangerous opponents on their way to the title.

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France celebrate after their World Cup final win over Croatia. The French were comfortably the best side at the tournament, and their march to the trophy was as comfortable as it gets.

Best Fairytale: Croatia

There wasn’t a clear cut fairytale side at this tournament, but there was no shortage of contenders. England, with their young talents and newfound enthusiasm, made it further than any English side in 28 years and captivated a nation in the process. Russia, with the public just hoping the hosts didn’t embarrass themselves, made it all the way to the quarter-finals and knocked out Spain along the way. Sweden made a quarter-final despite having little more than a good system and exemplary team spirit, and Japan defied expectations to nearly make the last eight in spite of a managerial change just two months out from the tournament. In the end, though, Croatia’s journey was more impressive. They had skill, but they needed all of their resilience to go the distance against Denmark, Russia and England, and the 4-2 scoreline of the final didn’t really do them justice. They fought right to the end, and they put in some remarkable efforts along the way.

Biggest Disappointment: Germany

There were plenty of sides who disappointed at this tournament. Portugal and Argentina, despite being powered by two of the world’s biggest stars in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, just scraped through to the round of 16 and found themselves exiting early. Spain were thrust into turmoil days out from the tournament when they sacked Julen Lopetegui, and they failed to fire amidst reports of division in the squad. Brazil were ominously solid in their first four games, but it all fell apart against the determined Belgians in the quarter-finals. In the end, however, all of these teams at least made the knockout stage. Germany didn’t. They looked uninterested and a shadow of the team which won the World Cup four years before, and they never really recovered from a shock opening defeat to Mexico. Their limp exit will have huge ramifications, as the Germans search for the reasons behind their dismal showing.

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South Korea’s players celebrate after upsetting Germany and eliminating them from the World Cup. Germany’s poor performance was unexpected, and it will have ramifications for the future.

Unluckiest Team: Morocco

There were plenty of teams who could be considered unlucky not to go further in this World Cup. Peru looked brilliant against Denmark, held their own against eventual champions France and beat Australia comfortably, and yet they couldn’t pass the group stage. In Group H, Senegal fell foul of the new fair play tiebreaker, thus squandering their chance to become the only African team to make it through. It was another African team, however, who were completely luckless. Morocco were the better team in all of their three games, but the Atlas Lions finished with just one point to show for it. They never took a backwards step, but a 95th minute own goal against Iran (who were also hard-done-by in the end) and a 1-0 loss to Portugal sealed their fate before the final game had been played. They were one of a few unlucky African sides, as none of the five CAF nations made it past the group stage.

Team of the Tournament

Picking the best combined team of the tournament was a difficult task. There were plenty of players who put in strong performances throughout the tournament, with plenty of attackers proving very difficult to separate. The team is picked in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and France’s dominance is reflected in the selection of six of their players in the side.

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Thibaut Courtois makes a diving save during Belgium’s quarter-final win over Brazil. Courtois won the golden glove for his performances as Belgium progressed to the semi-finals.

Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois is a classy player. It’s not often a goalkeeper can be described in such terms, but Courtois is no regular goalkeeper. His unflustered air allows him to move with incredible grace, and his extraordinary reach allows him to make difficult saves look incredibly easy. In the end, he was the best of the goalkeepers who featured in the tournament’s final stages, and although Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa and Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel had brilliant tournaments neither of their sides made it far enough to warrant their selection.
Honourable mentions: Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico) and Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)

Right-back: Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
There were two standout right-backs at this tournament, with Meunier playing some brilliant football on Belgium’s right-flank and Kieran Trippier performing a similar role for England with plenty of skill. The two shone at all stages of the tournament, with Trippier’s set piece delivery becoming an integral part of England’s game plan and Meunier’s crosses from the right causing plenty of issues for opposing defences, but in the end the third-place play-off between the teams decided the selection issue in Meunier’s favour. Fresh after missing the semi-final against France (his loss was a massive one) Meunier scored a goal against the English and showcased his attacking and defensive qualities in a brilliant performance.
Honourable mention: Kieran Trippier (England)

Centre-backs: Raphaël Varane (France) and Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Much like the French, Varane got better as the tournament progressed, and he had a big hand in their success with his aerial strength and his ability to match the world’s top strikers. He even provided a threat at the other end, scoring a couple of very nice goals. Granqvist was even more important for Sweden. He picked up a couple of goals from the penalty spot, and he used his imposing physique to good effect in some dominant defensive performances, and he thoroughly deserves his spot in this side. Others could have easily won a spot, with Diego Godín holding Uruguay’s defence together and Swiss young gun Manuel Akanji playing with a composure that belied his lack of international experience, but neither were quite able to get a spot.
Honourable mentions: Diego Godín (Uruguay) and Manuel Akanji (Switzerland)

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Andreas Granqvist celebrates after scoring Sweden’s first goal against South Korea. Granqvist was the main man in Sweden’s defence, and he was the key reason for their success.

Left-back: Lucas Hernández (France)
Of all the positions, left-back was one of the hardest to pick due to a lack of strongly performing players in the position. Hernández, however, was consistent throughout and gave France plenty with his excellent all-round performances. He was able to push forward when required and he swung in some dangerous crosses, but his defensive work stood out. He was composed under pressure, displaying an ability to cleverly draw fouls when France were in need of a breather. He had no real competition, and deserves a spot in this team.
Honourable mention: Yūto Nagatomo (Japan)

Central midfielders: Paul Pogba (France) and N’Golo Kanté (France)
Pogba and Kanté’s brilliant midfield performances ensured both men basically picked themselves, and there wasn’t anyone who really came close to dislodging either. Kanté was brilliant despite an underwhelming effort in the final, and no other holding midfielder was able to exact his level of influence on matches. Alongside Pogba, who pushed forward well and managed to score a key goal in the final, Kanté led the best midfield duo in the tournament – by some distance. Paulinho was good for Brazil, and some, like Ivan Rakitić and Aleksandr Golovin, showed some skills, but Pogba and Kanté’s consistency was unmatched.
Honourable mentions: Paulinho (Brazil), Aleksandr Golovin (Russia) and Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)

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N’Golo Kanté (left) and Paul Pogba (centre) chase Belgian captain Eden Hazard during France’s semi-final win. Kanté and Pogba complemented each other perfectly, and their efforts were a key part of France’s success.

Right-wing: Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé was so good that he was the only possible winner of the award for best young player of the tournament, and he announced himself on the world stage with some breathtaking efforts. In two short bursts he brought Argentina to their knees, and he consistently made opposing defences nervous with his unbelievable pace and well-honed skills. He seemingly has it all, and his brilliant efforts allowed him to win a place in the team over all-action Croatian winger Ante Rebić. He already is a star, and at 19 it’s scary how good a player he could become.
Honourable mention: Ante Rebić (Croatia)

Attacking midfielder: Luka Modrić (Croatia, captain)
Modrić was a deserving winner of the golden ball for the tournament’s best player as he led Croatia to the final with his typically dependable performances. When he is in the zone, he can take a game by the scruff of the neck without anyone realising it, and his exceptional vision allowed Croatia’s talented attackers to thrive. Philippe Coutinho was brilliant in Brazil’s run to the last eight, but he was no match for Croatia’s captain and midfield star.
Honourable mention: Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)

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Luka Modrić (left) battles for the ball with Kylian Mbappé during the World Cup final. Modrić’s efforts in taking Croatia to the final earned him the golden ball, while Mbappé was the tournament’s best young player and burst onto the scene with some dynamic performances.

Left-wing: Antoine Griezmann (France)
There were plenty of dangerous wingers who could accompany Mbappé, with Belgium’s Eden Hazard playing well throughout, Russian winger Denis Cheryshev bursting onto the scene with some great performances and Croatia’s Ivan Perišić delivering massive efforts in the semi-finals and the final. In the end, however, the berth went to Griezmann. Griezmann didn’t actually play on the left-wing, instead starting centrally and drifting wherever he want, but he had a massive impact and he was simply too good to leave out.
Honourable mentions: Eden Hazard (Belgium), Denis Cheryshev (Russia) and Ivan Perišić (Croatia)

Centre-forward: Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani scored three goals in four matches at the tournament, sending Uruguay into the quarter-finals with two sublime goals against Portugal and then missing the match with a calf injury. The impact his loss had on Uruguay’s play showed just how important his hard work in both defence and attack was, and makes him a deserving leader of the line over the more prolific but less influential Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane. His effort was remarkable, and he brought plenty of class to Uruguay’s attack.
Honourable mention: Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)

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Aspas saves Spain’s blushes against determined Morocco

It wasn’t meant to be this way. All the Spanish needed was a draw, against a Moroccan side who had already been eliminated. Sure, the Atlas Lions didn’t deserve to exit in such circumstances, and they had fought valiantly in defeats against Iran and Portugal, but it shouldn’t have been too hard for Spain to at least come away with the draw they needed to seal their safe passage from a competitive group. Now, with the end of normal time rapidly approaching, Spain were behind, and desperate to make something happen. After a sequence of controversial calls, Spain won a corner, and immediately sought to take it. Caught off guard, Morocco’s defence weren’t ready for Iago Aspas to latch onto Dani Carvajal’s cross, and they weren’t ready for the substitute to flick the ball into the back of the net. Then came Morocco’s salvation, and heartbreak for Spain. The offside flag was raised.

If Spain had expected the already eliminated Moroccans to meekly surrender to their more skilled opponents, they were very wrong. Morocco came out hard and it was a fiery start to the game, with a couple of early incidents drawing the ire of both teams and requiring the attention of referee Ravshan Irmatov. Nordin Amrabat and Sergio Ramos nearly came to blows, and Gerard Piqué’s two-footed sliding challenge on Khalid Boutaïb sent Boutaïb to the ground and provoked an defensive response from the Spanish defender, who believed his opponent to have dived and felt slighted by the insinuation that he was in the wrong. Then Spain went behind, and what was meant to be a cruisy match before the knockout stages suddenly became a much harder engagement than Spain had expected.

Boutaïb scored the goal against the run of play, capitalising on a poor pass in midfield to shock the Spanish. It was Ramos and Andrés Iniesta, Spain’s two most experienced campaigners, who conspired to play the Moroccan striker through. Iniesta played the fateful pass, completely missing his captain and allowing Boutaïb to run on to the ball and find himself one-on-one with Spanish goalkeeper David de Gea. De Gea tried his best, but he didn’t really stand a chance as Boutaïb’s shot slipped past him and rolled into the back of the net.

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Isco celebrates with teammates after scoring Spain’s first goal. The goal cancelled out Khalid Boutaïb’s opener, and settled Spain’s nerves after a poor start.

The Spanish, especially Aspas, reacted with indignation as all eyes turned to the linesman with his arm aloft and his flag in the air. It didn’t take long for them to begin badgering Irmatov, urging him to reverse his decision and consult with the video assistant referee. Eventually, the Uzbek referee obliged, and bedlam ensued as Morocco added their voices to Spain’s protests, aggrieved that said protests had achieved their aim of getting the goal checked. The offside call was tight – very tight.

Spain recovered shortly afterwards, with Iniesta atoning for his earlier error by slipping through the defence in conjunction with Diego Costa and Isco. The three played a beautiful series of passes, and Iniesta found himself on the by-line in a dangerous position. He cut the ball back into the centre, where Isco took a touch to control it and slammed it into the back of the net. Order had been restored.

The rest of the half progressed with few chances, with Spain controlling possession but Morocco holding firm. A quick throw from Hakim Ziyech, who was prodded into action after Moroccan coach Hervé Renard spotted an opportunity, caught the Spanish defence napping and sent Boutaïb through on goal again. De Gea managed to close him off quickly, and he saved it by getting his body in the way, but the warning was clear. The fiery nature of the contest didn’t abate as the match progressed, with Irmatov brandishing yellow cards to Amrabat, Manuel da Costa and then Mbark Boussoufa (for protesting the decision to book da Costa). The referee had plenty of work to do keeping tempers in check, and he even managed to involve himself in play by inadvertently sending Boutaïb sprawling. As the half wound to a close, Amrabat was lucky not to be sent off after tripping Sergio Busquets from behind and Morocco were lucky not to concede as Iniesta’s ball across goal evaded all, including the desperate slide of Costa.

The goal was paid, and Aspas wheeled away in a belated celebration. There may have been a delay in its award, but Aspas’ excitement in scoring the key goal wasn’t tempered by said delay. Aspas may have been happy, but Morocco were anything but. Tempers flared on the sidelines and all over the pitch, touchline staff made their way onto the field of play, and Achraf Hakimi became the seventh Moroccan to receive a booking in the process. Irmatov couldn’t be in two places at once, and he struggled to control the chaos that was unfolding.

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Iago Aspas (centre) scores his controversial back-heeled goal past Munir El Kajoui (left). The goal was initially disallowed, but that decision was reversed by the VAR.

The second half started similarly enough to the first, with neither side creating too many opportunities and both sides playing with similar intensity. Morocco had a great chance early when Mbark Boussoufa slipped in behind, but de Gea’s quick thinking averted a potential disaster for Spain. Spain started to control possession, but Morocco continued to create chances and Amrabat was very lucky when a dangerous strike hit the underside of the bar and bounced out. Spain thought they had scored when Isco rose to meet a cross into the box and headed it wide of Munir El Kajoui, but Romain Saïss was there to clear it away. When Gerard Piqué rose to head the resultant corner and only just missed from a dangerous position, Morocco seemed to be in trouble.

They managed to settle well, and soon the worst of the danger had passed. Then, after a lull in goalmouth action, Morocco took the lead once again. Ziyech won a corner, forcing Piqué to block a venomous shot and Fayçal Fajr ran in to take it. He swung it in perfectly, Youssef En-Nesyri leapt higher than Ramos to get his head on the ball, and his headed shot tucked itself neatly into the top corner. Less than 10 minutes of normal time remained, and Spain’s qualification was suddenly in serious doubt – once again.

Finally, the chaos subsided – at least long enough for the game to restart. Morocco were still far from calm, but they were able to play out the remaining minutes and there was little incident as the final moments played out with no real chances at either end. For Morocco, the draw was a fitting if slightly dissatisfying result for a team which deserved better from a competitive World Cup effort. For Spain, it allowed them to limp through to the last 16, and even take first place, but it won’t fill them with too much confidence going forward.

Kaliningrad – Kaliningrad Stadium
Spain 2 (Isco 19, Iago Aspas 90+1)
Morocco 2 (Boutaïb 14, En-Nesyri 81)
Referee: Ravshan Irmatov (Uzb)
Spain (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Carvajal, Piqué, Ramos, Jordi Alba; Busquets, Thiago (Asensio 74); Silva (Rodrigo 84), Isco, Iniesta; Diego Costa (Iago Aspas 74).
Morocco (4-2-3-1): El Kajoui – Dirar, da Costa, Saïss, Hakimi; Boussoufa, El Ahmadi; N Amrabat, Belhanda (Fajr 63), Ziyech (Bouhaddouz 85); Boutaïb (En-Nesyri 71).

Top 5
1. Isco (Spain)
Isco played some beautiful balls in behind the Moroccan defence to feed Iniesta and Jordi Alba. He was always dangerous with the ball at his feet, and his goal to cancel out Boutaïb’s opener was very well finished. He seems to be in good touch.
2. Nordin Amrabat (Morocco)
Amrabat capped off a brilliant individual tournament with another dangerous performance on the right wing. He was incredibly unlucky not to score when he shot bounced out off the underside of the bar, and he put plenty of pressure on Spain with his aggression and willingness to compete.
3. Andrés Iniesta (Spain)
Iniesta made the mistake which set up Morocco’s first goal, but he recovered well to pick up an assist and become one of Spain’s most dangerous attackers. He made plenty of incisive runs in behind, and looked like one of the most likely Spanish players to make something happen.
4. Khalid Boutaïb (Morocco)
Boutaïb found the back of the net with an opportunistic goal, and he always looked poised to make an impact with his clever runs in behind. He got himself into plenty of good positions, and he easily could have doubled his tally with his hard work and dangerous forward play.
5. Romain Saïss (Morocco)
Saïss was solid on return to the Moroccan defence, repelling a number of attacks and making a key goal line clearance to deny the Spanish as they pushed to go ahead in the second half. He was in good form, and his solid performance helped Morocco come away with a draw.

Portugal ride Ronaldo’s wave to edge out determined Atlas Lions

Fayçal Fajr lifted the free-kick long into the box. In the dying embers of Morocco’s clash with Portugal, the Atlas Lions were desperately trying to recoup a one-goal deficit that had existed from the fourth minute of the match. At stake were Morocco’s chances of progressing from a tough group, with a loss certainly consigning Hervé Renard’s team to elimination – with one game still to play. Fajr’s free-kick was launched at the mass of bodies now crowding the Portuguese penalty area, and it fell at the feet of Moroccan captain Medhi Benatia, who had space and drew back his left foot to shoot from inside the area. He had missed in an almost identical situation earlier in the half, but surely this time, with the game on the line and everything set up perfectly, he could test Rui Patricio. Once again, the ball cleaved the air over the bar, sailing away from the goals and, ultimately, proving to be Morocco’s last chance to save their tournament. They fought valiantly, but they ultimately fell to a goal from the man who has destroyed so many of Portugal’s opponents: Cristiano Ronaldo.

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Cristiano Ronaldo lunges forward to score the only goal of the game in the fourth minute. After going ahead early on, the Portuguese held onto their lead for the rest of the match.

Whatever plan Hervé Renard had made to deal with Ronaldo after his stunning hat-trick in Portugal’s opening clash with Spain, it didn’t work. Less than five minutes had elapsed when Bernardo Silva and João Moutinho combined to deliver the ball into the box from a Portuguese corner, and Ronaldo, apparently unmarked and in plenty of space, headed home from close range. Manuel da Costa, assigned to stick with the Portuguese captain, was neatly sidestepped, and Munir El Kajoui had absolutely no chance as Ronaldo dived forward and drilled his header into the back of the net. When, a few minutes later, Ronaldo found space to shoot in the box and only narrowly missed, and Morocco seemed incapable of keeping him down.

Then things began to turn. Morocco started to put some sustained pressure on the Portuguese, working to win the ball high up the pitch and beginning to take some control. On the left wing, Hakim Ziyech was the architect, creating their best chance when he picked out Medhi Benatia from a corner and twice working his way into space to fire shots at Rui Patricio. In the meantime, he drifted all over the field, stringing together excellent passes and creating plenty of problems. On the right, Nordin Amrabat, who started the game wearing a skull cap but ditched it after 15 minutes, was the main weapon. He had pace, skill and threatened every time he received the ball, especially in space. Portuguese left-back Raphaël Guerreiro was a man under siege, often left embarrassed by his quicker, more skilled and cannier opponent, and Amrabat looked like breaking the game wide open on a number of occasions. Unfortunately for Morocco, he didn’t. Portugal still carried some threat, and El Kajoui was forced into a tough reflex save to deny Gonçalo Guedes just before the break.

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Nordin Amrabat (left) attempts to take on Portuguese left-back Raphaël Guerreiro. Amrabat was too good for Guerreiro all day, and he created plenty of trouble for Portugal.

Morocco started the second half with all of the zest they showed in the first, but they still struggled to break through Portugal’s defence. Patricio was forced to make a brilliant save to deny Younès Belhanda, whose headed effort from another dangerous Ziyech free-kick was destined for the bottom corner before the experienced goalkeeper deflected it away for the relative harmlessness of a corner. Shortly afterwards, Benatia blasted a shot over the bar, and it seemed like Morocco were beginning to lay a prolonged siege to the Portuguese goal. They couldn’t. The chances continued to come, but Portugal were able to assert just enough control to keep the pressure from mounting. Ziyech had a great chance, but his shot was deflected over the bar. The corner came to nothing. Pepe deflected a Moroccan corner into his arm. Morocco’s protestations for a penalty came to nothing. Morocco fought until the final whistle, and dominated a Portuguese team who didn’t disprove the theory that they’re too reliant on Ronaldo. It all came to nothing.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Portugal 1 (Ronaldo 4)
Morocco 0
Referee: Mark Geiger (USA)
Portugal (4-4-2): Rui Patricio – Cédric, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro; Bernardo Silva (Gelson Martins 59), João Moutinho (Adrien Silva 89), William Carvalho, João Mário (Fernandes 70); Guedes, Ronaldo.
Morocco (4-2-3-1): El Kajoui – Dirar, Benatia, da Costa, Hakimi; El Ahmadi (Fajr 86), Boussoufa; N Amrabat, Belhanda (Carcela 75), Ziyech; Boutaïb (El Kaabi 69).

Top 5
1. Nordin Amrabat (Morocco)
Amrabat was in blistering form down the right, terrorising Guerreiro all match and giving the Portuguese defence plenty of problems. His delivery into the box was dangerous, and if Morocco had a clinical finisher in the middle he could have finished the game with multiple assists.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Ronaldo only needed one moment to win Portugal the match. His evasion of da Costa at an early corner and subsequent finish proved to be the only goal of the match, and it gave him a remarkable record of four goals in two games at this tournament. Do Portugal rely on him too much? We shall see.
3. Hakim Ziyech (Morocco)
Ziyech was everywhere as Morocco tried desperately to equalise, and he looked like one of the only Moroccan players capable of creating chances against a solid Portuguese back four. His set piece delivery was brilliant, and caused plenty of nervous moments for Portugal.
4. Rui Patricio (Portugal)
Considering Morocco’s control of possession and territory, Patricio had less work to do than he may have otherwise expected. He was, however, called upon to make some tough stops, with his effort to deny a well-taken Belhanda header a particularly brilliant – and crucial – intervention.
5. Mbark Boussoufa (Morocco)
Boussoufa worked hard on and off the ball and allowed Morocco to control the game with his work in the middle. He created some chances with dangerous deliveries into the Portuguese penalty area, and put good pressure on Portugal when they had the ball.

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