SPAIN, IRAN, MOROCCO & PORTUGAL
When the draw was made for the FIFA World Cup in Russia thirty-two federations and their representatives wait patiently, suffering under the glare of the watching media and the extravagant elongated drama of the selection process – the ball’s out of the bag.
The World Cup is a month-long soccer festival in which the bigger historical successful teams hope to be, or are expected to be, competing for the big prize at the latter end of the tournament. With eight seeded teams (holders, hosts & the sixth highest rated teams on the FIFA rankings) hopeful of avoiding the one or two whales that swim in the lower seeds. One of these, Portugal (The European Football Champions of 2016) is selected in Group B – much to the chagrin of nearest geographical rivals Spain, the dominant force and winners of previous World Cups. This match will certainly be one of the highlights of the first round.
As noted, Spain is still a dominant force in the world of football. The champions of South Africa 2010 were humbled in Brazil 2014 by the scrappy Chilean side and ultimately their challenge to retain the trophy ended in an embarrassingly early exit. It was suggested at the time that the country had held onto the aging successful players too long and the balance of experience and youth was unstable. The truth was that the quality of youth was not quite there in the La Liga (Spain’s Premier division) and the experienced aging players that had served their country so well were still at their dominant best.
However, the squad embarking on Russia is a different dynamic – of course, the familiar World Class names rename such as Pique, Ramos and the exquisite Iniesta (Japan-bound after the World Cup) however these great players will be joined on the World’s stage by the next batch of potentially gifted players. The excellent duo from Atletico Madrid, Saul Niguez and Koke are key components in the high pressing and organised the structure of the successful Atletico side; they will bring an element of technical ability to the squad and a high endurance to a midfield packed with key playmakers. They will dovetail perfectly with the gifted Iniesta and in form David Silva – coming off a highly impressive season with English Champions Man City. Expect Spain to easily qualify from Group B as winners, unfortunately, this is where it will become infinitely more difficult for the team that revolutionised soccer…
The main reason that the later rounds will become increasingly problematic for the Spanish will be the lack of goals. Every country in the World will concede the lion share of the possession against them, however, proved on numerous occasions by being defensively obstinate opponents you can successfully suffocate the Spanish and will enable razor-like counter attacks – most recently proven against Switzerland; Spain dominated the football and yet still drew 1-1. Spain will likely play with one central striker allowing for the extra midfielder to controlled possession its whether Aspas has the quality of Costa the tolerance to be effective in the later rounds.
As a nation Iran has qualified previously for four FIFA World Cup’s however, they have only managed a single victory in those tournaments (a 2-1 win versus the USA) – the qualification for Russia was relatively an easy passage, qualifying first in the Asian section of the competition. The country is full of hope following qualification and then are unfortunately drawn against both Portugal and Spain out of the proverbial hat. This is the awful realization that faces both the minnows in Group B, Iran and Morocco. In Asian football Iran is obviously increasingly competitive, their squad has been drawn together and includes former U21’s players from both Germany and Ghana. Manchester United fans will know well the manager of the Iranian football team; as its former coach and European tactical expert Carlos Quiroz has plenty of managerial experience at the highest level at his disposal. As proved in qualification Iran has plenty of goals in them and in rising star Sarder Azmoun who plays his football in Russia for Rubin Kazan, the prolific striker at just 23 is already on the transfer target list for teams in both France and Germany.
Key to Iran’s survival is the obvious need to undertake a successful start to the tournament when facing Morocco in their first games. It’s imperative they go into the games against Spain and Portugal with three points on the board – unfortunately for the Iranians, the experience of Russia 2018 will likely be a similar journey of previous tournaments – three quick defeats and an early plane home.
Despite an erroneous exit from Nottingham Forest because of injury Dejagah is the Iranian captain and has played football at the highest level in the Bundesliga for both Hertha and more prominently Wolfsburg and it will be this experience that Iran will desperately rely on.
If any team can split the Iberian Peninsula giants it will be the North Africans. With much of the squad plying their trades in the higher echelons of the top European leagues, there is plenty of experience to go alongside attacking players with true ability. The national coach, Frenchman Herve Renard has plenty of distinctive experience and an intriguing passport stamp collection to be extremely proud of – after spending little short of three months in charge of Cambridge United he can also list the managerial positions of Ivory Coast, Angola, and Zambia on a rather unique Curriculum Vitae.
In an impressive qualification display, Morocco arrives at the finals without conceding a goal in the competitive run-up to the finals. Defensively led by the outstanding Mehdi Benatia (Juventus) the squad is threaded with top players. Unfortunately, Morocco would be going into the FIFA World Cup full of optimism, but they have been dealt a horrendous draw and will go up against footballing giants Spain and Portugal. However, if they can give the talented Hakim Ziyech plenty of the football they may have a slim opportunity to upset one of the big boys in similar fashion to Costa Rica four years previously – expect Morocco to be well organised with proper flair in the right places – all the other teams will be hoping that Morocco will do their best to unseat one of the giants.
An easy one – the in-form Ziyech, currently the Dutch footballer of the year has the precocious ability to drift into positions off the defensive line, lose him and allow him to turn into space at your peril. Expect an almost old school ‘man to man’ marker set up in the bigger games against the Europeans. A quick nod to key-pin Younes Belhanda the French-born defensive midfielder will be integral in the big games and can be the glue and the impetus to hold the team together and push them further up the field.
Or if we let one dominative personality and his super-agent to allow us to believe – Mr. Christiano Ronaldo and ten mortals. However, this fallacy was dismissed as Portugal, despite Ronaldo’s early injury overcame the odds to win Euro 2016, the largest European competition ever. Portugal is one of the sides unfortunate to be placed in Group B despite having undeniable recent success. Portugal will, however, likely be unfazed going up against their nearest and dearest Spain. To win a major tournament you must overcome the larger obstacles. Portugal stuttered in their qualifying campaign almost going back five years – outstanding in one game, awful in the next, consistency is Portugal’s major enemy.
Nobody will want to play Portugal due to the obvious talents of Ronaldo and the damage he can create single handily. Over recent history, Portugal has had at their disposal several rugged defenders especially the massively underrated Ricardo Carvalhio and the volcanic Pepe who, at 35, is still competing in Turkey and on the International stage. Rapheal Guerreiro will offer some versatility down the left-hand side after coming off a productive season with German side Dortmund. The squad named is an able collection of players once analyzed, however, stronger Portuguese squads have gone to the World Squad with considerable higher expectations and have failed at the biggest of hurdles. Expect Portugal to overcome both Morocco and Iran so in theory, the Spain Portugal matchup could be a dead rubber – but neither side will want to come second and face a group winner.
It would be uncomplicated to select Ronaldo, but the footballing giant is often frustrated with his teammates lack of certain qualities. However, in the diminutive forward-thinking midfielder Portugal has in Silva a player with plenty of quality, proven on the highest level, used sporadically, yet effectively for Manchester City as they won the Premier League at an absolute canter, Silva should be able to supply quality football and service to the forwards. If the players selected around Ronaldo can have a good tournament than Ronaldo himself will have a good tournament and like two years ago underrate them at your peril!