Spain control the ball, but Russia hold on for shock win from the spot

Marco Asensio and Koke prepared to deliver the free-kick. Spain had won the kick on the right wing after Russian left-back Yuri Zhirkov clattered into Spanish right-back, and after dominating possession it presented them with their best chance of turning their control of the match into an early lead. Asensio, starting in place of decorated midfielder Andrés Iniesta, was the man who stepped up to take the free-kick. The 22-year-old languidly approached the ball and gracefully delivered the ball towards the back post, where pugilistic Spanish captain Sergio Ramos was entangled with Sergei Ignashevich. It was a bizarre scene. Ignashevich wasn’t watching the ball, instead gripping Ramos in a bear hug and tackling him to the ground. He wasn’t watching the ball when it reached the pair, and Ramos desperately tried to get a boot on it. He didn’t. Instead, the ball bounced of Ignashevich’s calf, looping past Igor Akinfeev and putting Spain in the lead. With just over 10 minutes gone, Spain were in control.

Iago Aspas approached the penalty spot. He needed to score to keep Spain in the competition. He ran up to the ball, and lashed his penalty straight down the middle. Akinfeev saved it. The Russian captain kept the penalty out and it flew away harmlessly, confirming Spain’s elimination on penalties and sending the Russian fans into raptures. Akinfeev, so calm during the shootout, celebrated loudly as he was embraced by his euphoric teammates. Spain, defeated in a match they had controlled from start to finish, could only stand disconsolately, wondering what had gone wrong. Ignashevich’s own goal, and Spain’s celebrations, were in the distant past. It didn’t feel like it had happened in the same game. The weather wasn’t even the same, with the sun that had greeted the beginning of the match giving way to pouring rain as the match progressed to a famous Russian victory.

After the goal, such an end was inconceivable. Spain weren’t really penetrating the Russian defence, but Russia weren’t even touching the ball, let alone threatening the Spanish. Spain just passed. And passed. And passed a little more. The centre-backs got plenty of the ball, as did Koke and Sergio Busquets in holding midfield. Occasionally, they saw fit to distribute the ball into a more threatening position. Such occasions were rare. Then, as so often happens, Russia’s one real piece of attacking play provided the equaliser. In a sign of what was to come, they scored from a penalty. It started with a corner, as Artem Dzyuba got his head to Aleksandr Samedov’s delivery and knocked it into Gerard Piqué’s raised arm. No amount of protesting could convince Björn Kuipers to reverse his decision, and Dzyuba stepped up to confidently drill the penalty past David de Gea. Dzyuba ran towards the corner in a slightly confused but passionate celebration, running with his arms outstretched before slapping his chest a few times, jumping and punching the air in front of him and, finally, standing to attention. At least the sentiment was clear.

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Igor Akinfeev celebrates after saving Iago Aspas’ penalty to confirm Russia’s win in the shootout. Akinfeev led from the front, saving two penalties as Russia claimed a famous victory.

Now needing to score another goal to get the win, Spain reverted back to their modus operandi: pass, pass and pass some more. They started to move the ball forward with slightly more intensity as the half drew to a close, with Diego Costa coming particularly close when he got on the end of a neat through ball and tested Akinfeev from close range. It came to nothing. Then, after half time, the intensity seemed to disappear. Spain passed, a lot, but never really made headway against Russia’s determined five-man defence. They didn’t seem to have enough urgency to break them down.

Spain’s play became an endless cycle of harmless backwards and sideways passes, which weren’t even played at enough speed to move the Russian defence from side to side. Russia did some running, but they never really had to exert themselves in defending Spain’s attacks. Iniesta came on and threatened to make something happen, playing a quick one-two to run into the box but failing to control the ball at the decisive moment. Russia cleared the ball away, Piqué received the ball uncontested, and the cycle of sideways and backwards passes started again. Jordi Alba played a little lofted pass for Isco, but it was cleared away for a throw-in. The cycle started again. Isco and Iniesta found the ball in the box, but they got in a tangle and the Russians got it away. Eventually their rather toothless-looking counter-attack failed, and the cycle started again. Spain won a corner and looked slightly dangerous, but Russia eventually cleared. Dani Carvajal threw the ball all the way back to Piqué, and the cycle started again.

Spain started to lift their intensity, and there were a few good attacks, but the cycle continued. Iniesta forced Akinfeev into a diving save after receiving the ball just outside the area, and Iago Aspas nearly converted from the rebound. Russia cleared, and the cycle started again. Russia nearly had a chance when Ramos made a rare error in position and a number of slips granted Golovin the ball in a dangerous position. They conceded a free-kick, and the cycle started again. Spain won a free-kick and three consecutive corners, but Russia continued to rebuff them and eventually Ramos headed over the bar. The cycle started again. Fittingly, Spain were passing the ball sideways when the whistle blew to signify the end of the first 90 minutes.

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Andrés Iniesta (front) controls the ball under pressure from Roman Zobnin. Iniesta had an impact after entering the game, making Spain look more dangerous with his runs into pockets of space.

Spain began extra time with more urgency, with Isco heavily involved and slipping a nice pass through for Carvajal shortly after play resumed. They continued to pass the ball around without allowing Russia time on the ball, but suddenly they were pushing up towards the edge of the penalty area, allowing them to win the ball in more advanced positions. Russia still held firm, though, and they didn’t look like being breached despite Spain’s slightly more adventurous attacking play. At one point Aspas slipped over on the edge of the area, and Isco cannoned straight into his back. Both fell over. It just wasn’t happening for Spain. For the first time in the match, Spain had the space and, more importantly, the will to mount a genuine counter-attack, and Iniesta’s pass found Aspas in space. Unfortunately for the Spanish, Aspas was fighting a losing battle as he took on the entire Russian defence with no support. His shot was eventually blocked.

Spain continued to control possession, but their risk-averse approach seemed to give them little chance of scoring. Rodrigo, Spain’s fourth substitute (in the first World Cup game to involve a fourth substitution in extra time), nearly made something happen when he forced Akinfeev into a save and Spain picked up the rebound, but Russia managed to survive. Iniesta continued to threaten, but Russia continued to survive. Russia had a nervous moment when Koke’s free-kick contributed to all sorts of tangles in the box and the video assistant referee began checking for a penalty, but no evidence of illegal defending was found. Eventually, after more than two hours of Spain’s ceaseless passing, Kuipers blew the whistle to signify the end of regular play, and to signify the beginning of the ultimate tiebreaker, the dreaded penalty shootout.

Iniesta stepped up first, stroking the ball past Akinfeev very calmly. Fyodor Smolov drilled his penalty past de Gea. Piqué flicked the ball nonchalantly into his hands as he walked up to take the penalty, and he showed his coolness with a brilliant finish. Ignashevich was next, chipping it past de Gea and expressionlessly turning on his heel and walking back to the centre. Then came Koke. Koke strolled up to the spot, and drilled it to the left. Akinfeev went the same way, parrying the kick and sending the home crowd into raptures as Koke pulled his shirt up to cover his face. He looked as though he was hoping the turf would swallow him up. Suddenly, Spain were behind. Golovin didn’t miss for Russia. Neither did Ramos, who took a meandering approach to the spot and sent Akinfeev in the wrong direction. De Gea needed a save. Denis Cheryshev, who has spent all of his professional career playing in Spain, didn’t allow that to happen. Time was running out, and Spain only had one more kick to get themselves back in the shootout. Aspas missed it, and it was all over. Spain’s turbulent and underwhelming campaign ended on penalties, and Russia’s dream run in front of their home fans continued. The Spanish had no answer as they tried to subject Russia to death by a thousand cuts. In the end, the only team harmed by Spain’s monopolisation of possession seemed to be the Spanish themselves.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Spain 1 (Ignashevich 12 og)
Russia 1 (Dzyuba 41 pen) (a.e.t, Russia won 4-3 on penalties)
Referee: Björn Kuipers (Ned)
Spain (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Nacho (Carvajal 70), Piqué, Ramos, Jordi Alba; Koke, Busquets; Silva (Iniesta 67), Isco, Asensio (Rodrigo 104); Diego Costa (Iago Aspas 80).
Russia (5-3-2): Akinfeev – Mário Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Kudryashov, Zhirkov (Granat 46); Samedov (Cheryshev 61), Zobnin, Kuzyayev (Yerokhin 97); Dzyuba (Smolov 65), Golovin.

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Rodrigo (centre) is denied by Igor Akinfeev (left) during extra time. The save was one of Akinfeev’s best, and was a highlight of a performance capped off by his penalty shootout heroics.

Top 5
1. Igor Akinfeev (Russia)
Considering Spain’s dominance of possession, Akinfeev had surprisingly little to do, but he was always there when Russia needed him. He made some nice saves, and he showed his experience in the penalty shootout by coming up with a pair of excellent saves and sending his side through.
2. Andrés Iniesta (Spain)
When Spain conduct the inquiry into how their round of 16 exit came to be, Fernando Hierro’s decision to remove Iniesta from the starting line-up will come in for immense scrutiny. When he came on, the 34-year-old provided an energy his teammates lacked, and he looked like Spain’s best chance of breaking through. He showed his experience by neatly slotting home his penalty.
3. Isco (Spain)
Isco was everywhere, popping up all over the field and playing some neat passes as he tried to breach the Russian defence with dynamism and flair. He was involved in almost all of Spain’s attacks, and his through passes were more incisive than most. He has a big future, and although he wasn’t at his most fluent he had a big impact.
4. Sergio Ramos (Spain)
Ramos seemed to find the ball more than any of his teammates, and he had an impact with his experience and threat at set pieces. His work on the end of Asensio’s free-kick allowed Spain to go ahead early, and his defensive work was always solid. He was one of the experienced Spanish players who converted in the shootout.
5. Ilya Kutepov (Russia)
Kutepov did some good defensive work as part of Russia’s back five, keeping Spain out on a few occasions with blocks and clearances and generally looking solid. With most of Spain’s play focusing on Kutepov’s side of the field, he held up well and wasn’t really beaten throughout the 120 minutes.

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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