Group B Preview: Spain favourites in group of death

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If you want narrative then you’ve come to the right group: not only are these countries all decent at football, they’re also fairly close together on the map! Sure, it doesn’t really mean much when the World Cup is being played in Russia, but don’t let reason stop you from reading our Group B preview:

Portugal

Road to Russia

Only a few months on from their unlikely/morally incorrect win at Euro 2016, Portugal suffered a defeat in Switzerland on the first matchday of qualification before bouncing back to win their next nine straight, scoring 32 goals along the way. A 2-0 win over the Swiss in Lisbon on the final match day sealed direct qualification.

Coach

They say he grimaced into the wind and his face hasn’t moved since. Fernando Santos won’t win a trophy for looking happy any time soon but he won’t care either, having won the much better prize of the European Championships only two years ago with one of the least deserving sides in the competition’s history. “You play to win and for that you need to ensure that the team does not concede,” he says. “At the same time, one needs to score to win.” Criticise his methods all you like – and I will, all the way through the tournament until Portugal go out – but the man gets football.

Key Players

Yeah, I can think of one. It’d almost be more facetious to suggest that there are any others.

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Verdict

The match against Spain stands out as one of the highlights of the group stage, and an opportunity for Cristiano Ronaldo (and supporting cast)  to deliver against a few of his Real Madrid teammates.  Portugal should be able to beat Morocco and Iran, which regardless of the result against Spain would leave them looking at a round of sixteen matchup with Uruguay or Egypt (or Russia or Saudi Arabia, but let’s be realistic). A spot in the quarter finals seems likely enough, but then Portugal would really need to dig in – hey, they’ve done it before.

Spain

Road to Russia

Spain only dropped two points in qualifying, in a 1-1 draw in Rome back nearly two years ago. The disappointment of draws in recent friendlies against Germany, Russia and Switzerland was offset somewhat by the 6-1 thrashing of a Messi-less Argentina in March.

Coach

Shame on the Spanish FA, who ruined my preview by sacking Julen Lopetegui two days out from the World Cup and then didn’t have the guts to appoint a seriously big name like Zinedine Zidane or Mark Bosnich (once famously 30/1 for the Aston Villa job) in his place. Fernando Hierro will take Spain to the 2018 World Cup after a pretty inexplicable series of events; the former Real Madrid defender having served as sporting director for the national team since late last year.

Here’s what I wrote yesterday:

Julen Lopetegui has literally just been appointed as the next coach of Real Madrid following Spain’s participation at the World Cup, which means it’ll only be a few months until he can add ‘former Real Madrid manager’ to his resume. Previously managed Spain’s U/21 and U/19 sides to respective European Championships, after a playing career as a goalkeeper of little note and few appearances for both his future employer and Barcelona.

Like sands through the hourglass. I’ll bet Madrid sack him before you finish reading this article.

Key Players

It’s rare that an English idiom translates so well, but there’s no ‘yo’ in ‘equipo’: few international sides play so distinctly and necessarily as a team as Spain. Where modern international football styles have largely been smoothed over to homogeneity by the flow of young players to Europe, Spain are still different – it helps that the bulk of this side play with each other for one of two teams and have done so for a decade – so it’s hard to say any one player will be more important to the team’s chances as another. Pushed for an answer, it’s easy to see how Spain could fall apart should Sergio Ramos finally collapse under the weight of the world’s collective animosity.

Verdict

Are Spain still good? A few key figures of the historic 2008-2012 dynasty remain crucial to the side, particularly Ramos and Andres Iniesta. Still, a lot else has changed – immediately, the coach comes to mind. It’s hard to wrap your head around why any of this has happened – why Real Madrid needed to make the announcement two days out from a World Cup, and why the jefes at the Spanish FA decided to sack their man with the same timeframe in mind. It’s also hard to wrap your head around what it means for Spain at this World Cup. One of the favourites has just made a move that I can only describe as downright French, and it’d be surprising if it wasn’t to Spain’s detriment. They should hope for a spot in the last four, but a bad quarter final draw could do for them early.

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Morocco

Road to Russia

Scraped through a playoff with Equatorial Guinea to go unbeaten in the third and final stage of qualifying, holding out Mali, Gabon and the Ivory Coast without conceding a goal to finish top of their group. Undefeated in their last seven friendlies going back to mid-2017, when they copped a 2-1 defeat to the Netherlands.

Coach

A lot has changed since Hervé Renard won the 2012 African Cup of Nations with Zambia. He doesn’t coach Zambia any more, for one. We’ve got a new president. The coastline isn’t as long as it used to be, and the sea keeps getting warmer. The price of single fare on an Opal card continues to skyrocket in spite of the recent avocado surplus.

At least you can rely on some things: Renard still being the same sweat-drenched, open-shirted AFCON whisperer he always was is one of them. You’re likely to see as much of him as you are his players when Morocco take the field.

Key players

If you haven’t heard of Hakim Ziyech, you need to stop living in the real world and start spending 18 hours a day playing an excruciatingly detailed football management simulation game so you’re more clued-up about Ajax’s talent pool. Those of us who live online know Ziyech as a 2025 Balon D’Or winner. Everyone else will have at least three matches over the next few weeks to catch up.

Verdict

They’ve been dealt a pretty rough hand. Morocco might cause trouble for Spain and/or Portugal, so three points against Iran could mean a draw would see them through the group. Their first match is ostensibly their easiest – or least difficult, anyway – so it’s vital they hit the ground running or risk being left behind before the tournament really gets underway.

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Iran

Road to Russia

After slogging their way through both stages of Asian qualifying without losing a game – having gone the first nine without conceding a goal – Iran were rewarded for their efforts with one of the least enviable draws in this year’s tournament. Reasonably successful in low-profile friendlies against Lithuania and Uzbekistan, but defeated by Turkey in one of their most recent warm-up matches.

Coach

Carlos Queiroz could’ve been coaching Iran for the last seven years and I’d still only know him as a former assistant to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United (it’s almost an honorific at this point). Did you know he has been coaching Iran for the last seven years? Time flies when you only care about the Socceroos, but since 2011 Queiroz has led Iran to two World Cups – this year and 2014 – and played his part in a gladiatorial quarter final defeat to Iraq at the 2015 Asian Cup. He’s the longest-serving manager in the history of the Iranian team.

Key players

Iran’s defence will be key to any hopes of progression, and if they manage to pick up a point or two in Russia, you can bet with relative certainty that goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand will have had a hand in it. He’s also got a great story, which is half of playing at the World Cup if you’re not Brazilian or German: Beiranvand was discouraged from playing football by his father, who tore his son’s kit and gloves and implored him to take up simple work instead. My dad supports me in everything I do, but I’ll never play at a World Cup.

Verdict

They’ve been dealt a pretty rough hand. Morocco Iran might cause trouble for Spain and/or Portugal, so three points against Iran Morocco could mean a draw would see them through the group. Their first match is ostensibly their easiest – or least difficult, anyway – so it’s vital they hit the ground running or risk being left behind before the tournament really gets underway.

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Max Grieve
Max joined The Football Sack in 2014, covering Sydney FC in the Hyundai A-League and Westfield W-League. He likes Liverpool, APIA Leichhardt, the Leichhardt Saints and goals.

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