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.

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.

Spain toil hard to edge out determined Iranians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iberian thriller ends in high-scoring stalemate

Cristiano Ronaldo was facing off with Nacho. The Portuguese captain had the ball at his feet, and he was looking to put the Spanish under pressure in the opening minutes of the match. In the lead-up to the blockbuster game, Spain’s very public decision to sack coach Julen Lopetegui two days before the tournament threw their preparation into disarray, and created a media storm. Now, under the temporary guidance of Fernando Hierro, they needed to show something. Less than three minutes had elapsed when Ronaldo, with dazzling speed and perfect control, executed a stepover, looked to breeze past Nacho and tripped over the stand-in right-back’s outstretched leg. It was a penalty, and Ronaldo had absolutely no trouble scoring from the spot. Spain’s worst nightmare seemed to be unfolding before their eyes. They needed to show some serious resilience.

The ball was kicked long out of the Spanish defence, to the advantage of Pepe. Spain had started to take control of possession after going behind, creating a few chances with their exquisite passing game. For their part, the Portuguese were looking to hit them on the break, with the dangerous Ronaldo creating a couple of very good opportunities against the flow. Now, Portugal’s strong centre-back just had to beat Diego Costa, Spain’s skilled but slightly controversial striker, in the air. He didn’t. Costa brought the ball to ground, and Pepe went down in an attempt to win a free-kick. Now clear to run at the defence, Costa was faced with two opponents, Cédric and José Fonte. He paused at the top of the box, relying on the space he had behind him, and took a touch to the right. The defence followed. He took a touch to the left. The defence followed. He took another touch to the right. The defence followed again. Behind him, a crowd of Portuguese players reluctant to involve themselves watched as Costa’s shot travelled in between his two markers and eluded Rui Patricio’s dive. Spain, against all odds, were level.

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Cristiano Ronaldo (far left) celebrates scoring the game’s opening goal from the spot. The goal was the first of his brilliant hat-trick.

Pepe’s long pass found Gonçalo Guedes on the edge of the box. Portugal were still struggling to keep pace with the Spanish as the first half wound down, with Isco coming tantalisingly close to scoring with a thunderous strike that hit the bar and landed on the goal line. It bounced out, and Portugal breathed a sigh of relief. 15 minutes after that near-miss, Guedes controlled the ball with a touch before shuffling it to the feet of Ronaldo. Portugal’s talisman had time, space and was in a dangerous position on the edge of the box. It was the chance Portugal were looking for. With his left foot, Ronaldo fired away – and pinpointed goalkeeper David de Gea. It was an easy save, especially for de Gea, the best goalkeeper in the Premier League. At least, it should have been an easy save. Instead, it rolled through his normally safe hands and into the back of the net. Ronaldo had two, and Portugal had the lead at the end of a dramatic and pulsating first half.

David Silva and Koke stood over the free-kick. Since half time, Spain had been fighting hard to recoup the deficit, and the set piece gave them a chance. What happened next was a pretty simply choreographed routine, but it looked like poetry in motion. Silva and Koke played a rather unnecessary one-two, with the ball ending up in the spot of the original free-kick. Then Silva put in his cross. At first glance, it looked too deep for Sergio Busquets to score. As the play unfolded, with Busquets nodding the ball into the centre of the goalmouth, it became clear that Silva had executed his delivery to perfection. In vain, Portuguese defenders scrambled to clear the ball that was hanging on their goal line. Diego Costa was quicker, and the sides were level once again.

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Sergio Ramos (right) blocks a shot from Gonçalo Guedes. Ramos came in the game under fire after becoming a key part of the controversy surrounding Julen Lopetegui, but he managed to put in a strong performance in defence.

An attempted Spanish foray into the Portuguese box came to nothing, cleared into some vacant space outside the area. Spain had not let up after their equaliser, and barely three minutes later they were surging forward again. Now, right-back Nacho was streaming forward at pace. He had spied the ball that was slowly bouncing away from the Portuguese goal, and he was the first to get there. On the pristine turf of Fisht Stadium, the ball bounced truly as Nacho attempted a first-time shot from range. It was unstoppable, slamming into the inside of the left goalpost and ricocheting across the goal line to career into the other post. The only question was which way the ball would rebound, and whether Nacho would be cruelly denied as Isco was at the height of the first half’s action. He wasn’t. After bouncing off both posts it rolled safely into the back of the net. Thanks to Nacho’s wonder strike, Spain had the lead with half an hour left to play. They just needed their experience to see them through.

Ronaldo was fouled on the edge of the box. With two minutes left, the scoreboard still read 3-2 in the favour of the Spaniards. With a late lead, they were passing the ball around as calmly as ever, and they were continuing to evade an increasingly desperate Portuguese press hell-bent on taking the ball from them. For most of the second half, Ronaldo had been a frustrated figure up front, letting his anger show and struggling to make an impact. Now, the captain was preparing to take a free-kick within easy scoring range. Raphaël Guerreiro was also standing next to the ball in seeming readiness to take the kick, but it was obvious that Ronaldo was the man who would shoulder the responsibility. There was no way he would give up such a crucial opportunity. He languidly stepped up to take the kick, showing no sign of pressure or nervousness. Then, with seemingly no effort, he lifted the ball over the wall into the top corner. De Gea didn’t bother to move. There was nothing he could have done. Ronaldo had a hat-trick, Portugal had equalised at the end of a riveting contest, and the Spanish fell just short of a dream start to their World Cup campaign.

For Spain, the result will be a disappointment, but they will take solace from their resilience in coming from behind after all of the off-field drama surrounding the team. For Portugal, a draw with the Spanish is a great way to start the tournament, and Ronaldo’s form will be an added positive to take from the match. For everyone else, the game was a pulsating, high-pressure contest with plenty of goals, plenty of drama and plenty of tension. When this tournament is over, this match may well be remembered as a classic, and if it’s a sign of things to come this World Cup will be a very exciting show.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Portugal 3 (Ronaldo 4 pen, 44, 88)
Spain 3 (Diego Costa 24, 55, Nacho 58)
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (Ita)
Portugal (4-2-3-1): Rui Patricio – Cédric, Pepe, Fonte, Raphaël Guerreiro; Moutinho, William Carvalho; Bernardo Silva (Quaresma 69), Guedes (André Silva 80), Bruno Fernandes (João Mário 68); Ronaldo.
Spain (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Nacho, Piqué, Ramos, Jordi Alba; Sergio Busquets, Koke; Silva (Lucas Vázquez 86), Isco, Iniesta (Thiago 70); Diego Costa (Iago Aspas 77).

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Diego Costa (right) leads Pepe to the ball. Costa and Pepe had a running battle going all night, with Costa finishing with two goals.

Top 5
1. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Ronaldo was head-and-shoulders above the rest of his teammates, scoring all three of Portugal’s goals and creating plenty of other chances while dropping back into midfield. His game-tying free-kick under pressure was remarkable, and he showed that he has come to play at this World Cup. With the confidence coming from a hat-trick under his belt, he will be a force to be reckoned with.
2. Diego Costa (Spain)
Costa scored two equalisers for the Spanish, firstly beating out three defenders to score into the bottom corner and then positioning himself well to slam the ball home from a metre out. He excelled in getting himself into dangerous spots and finding space, and he was a constant goal threat before his substitution late in the game. If he can keep this form up Spain will be much tougher to face.
3. Isco (Spain)
Isco orchestrated most of Spain’s play from attacking midfield, forming a graceful and effective combination with Silva and Iniesta and showing a zest in attack that his more experienced teammates couldn’t quite provide. He was remarkably unlucky not to score when his shot from the edge of the box bounced out off the underside of the bar, and he looks ready to make an impact.
4. David Silva (Spain)
Silva provided the delivery for Costa’s second goal, and showed his class in combining well with the rest of the midfield. He managed to work into dangerous positions, and he was as sharp as ever on the ball. With his expert touch and scarily effective combination with his teammates in attacking midfield Silva caused plenty of problems for the Portuguese.
5. William Carvalho (Portugal)
William is the unsung hero of Portugal’s team, providing a steadying hand in the middle of the park and doing good work supporting the defence. He was in good form again against the Spanish, always finding himself in the right spot and winning plenty of the ball as a result. He was nowhere near their most flashy player, but he did his job well.

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

Italy outclass sluggish Spain

It was billed as the game of the round, and Italy rose to the occasion at the Stade de France with an excellent performance. Giorgio Chiellini scored the first goal just after the half-hour, and Graziano Pelle scored his second goal of the tournament in injury time to seal the deal. The Italians were expected to sit back and absorb the Spanish pressure, but it was soon clear that they were going to play a much more active role in the game than first thought. Soon enough it was the Spanish who were forced to cope with the Italian pressure, and Pelle came incredibly close to scoring with a header from Alessandro Florenzi’s well-placed free kick. The ball was hit well towards the bottom corner, but David de Gea made an excellent reflex save to deny the Italians. They had another great chance when Eder headed the ball in the direction of Emanuele Giaccherini, whose well-hit bicycle kick forced a wonderful stop from de Gea. The ball bounced off the post, and Spain were lucky to survive.

Then came the goal. Italy received a free kick in a perfect scoring position, and Eder drove the ball in past the wall towards the bottom corner. It was a good strike, but de Gea was up to it and made the save, before sliding in to prevent Giaccherini from scoring from the rebound. The ball spilled loose, and Chiellini was simply too fast for Gerard Pique as he bundled the ball into the back of the net. It was a good goal, and it was the difference between the sides at the break as Spain were unable to make any kind of impact. The Spanish started the second half more positively, and Alvaro Morata had a great chance when his header was well saved by Gianluigi Buffon. Spain had most of the possession, but the Italians looked very dangerous on the break. Eder forced de Gea to make a great save when Pelle’s back heel left him one-on-one with the Spanish keeper, and Spain looked to be in a difficult position.

Spain threatened to take control time and time again, and with twenty minutes to go they had a string of brilliant opportunities. Lucas Vazquez looked to be through after some good work from Aritz Aduriz, but he was adjudged to be offside and Italy regained their control. Spain had control of possession, but they were not quick enough in attack to challenge the Italian defence. Andres Iniesta had a good chance with a volley but Buffon was able to save it. The Italian keeper was called into action again moments later when Pique forced a diving save with a shot from range, and Spain looked as if they could break the Italian defence. They couldn’t. Italy stopped the Spanish charge and took the heat out of the game, and Spain did not have enough life in them to put it back. Pique had a great chance after de Gea’s hack into the box found him in a good position, but Buffon dived well and made the stop. The game was all but over when Lorenzo Insigne’s cross field ball found Matteo Darmian on the right wing, and the result was confirmed when Darmian’s cross connected with Pelle, who was in a brilliant position and put an unstoppable shot into the back of the net.

Saint-Denis – Stade de France
Italy 2 (Chiellini 33, Pelle 90+1)
Spain 0
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Tur)

Italy (3-5-2): Buffon – Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Florenzi (Darmian 84), Parolo, de Rossi (Motta 53), Giaccherini, de Sciglio; Pelle, Eder (Insigne 82).
Spain (4-3-3): de Gea – Juanfran, Pique, Ramos, Jordi Alba; Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta; Silva, Morata (Lucas Vazquez 70), Nolito (Aritz Aduriz 46 (Pedro Rodriguez 82)).

Top 5
1. Eder (Italy)
Eder was in top form, creating plenty of problems for the Spanish defence with his pace, skill and ability to slip in behind. His free kick set up the first goal for Italy, and he provided plenty of headaches for Spain with his speed on the counter-attack. He had many golden opportunities, and made life very difficult for the Spanish.
2. David de Gea (Spain)
Italy created great chances from the beginning, and de Gea had a very busy night as he made some top-drawer saves. He was unlucky to concede the first goal after some great goalkeeping to deny both Eder and Giaccherini, and he could not have saved the second. He kept Spain in the match with some of his work after the first Italian goal, and he can hold his head high after a great performance.
3. Leonardo Bonucci (Italy)
Bonucci was as solid as ever at the heart of the Italian defence, and the Spanish never really looked like breaking through him. He provided great leadership at the back and showed some of his skill on the ball with his excellent distribution. He had a good game and is in good form leading into a key clash with Germany.
4. Emanuele Giaccherini (Italy)
Giaccherini was lively from start to finish, pressing hard and putting plenty of pressure on the Spanish. He nearly scored on multiple occasions, and he was the first Italian player to get to the rebound after de Gea saved Eder’s powerful free kick. He nearly scored in a spectacular fashion with a bicycle kick, and his liveliness was a key reason for Italy’s victory.
5. Cesc Fabregas (Spain)
Fabregas tried very hard for the Spanish, and he had a good individual game at the heart of midfield. He created some excellent chances from set pieces and he was the player who looked most likely to create a goal for the Spaniards. He was able to find plenty of space throughout, and he was Spain’s most dangerous attacking force.