Group B features one of the most anticipated clashes of the group stage. Traditional rivals Spain and Portugal are set to duke it out in group play in a clash of two teams with legitimate title hopes.
However, to get there, the two European powers will be tested by each other and a pair of groupmates that boast plenty of potential in the attack.
Morocco and Iran are certainly underdogs in Group B play. It’s only natural in a group that features the 2010 World Cup champion in Spain and the 2016 European champion in Portugal. However, with talented in-form attackers on both teams, there could be an upset or two in the cards.
Will Group B go to form and, if so, will Spain or Portugal finish on top? Can Morrocco ride a strong attack and a star defender to an upset? Will Iran’s young frontline be enough to cause problems despite their underdog status?
Here’s a look at all of that and more as we take a closer look at Group B:
June 15: Morocco vs. Iran, Portugal vs. Spain
June 20: Portugal vs. Morocco, Iran vs. Spain
June 25: Iran vs. Portugal, Morocco vs. Spain
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Cristiano Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva, Pepe, Andre Silva
TOURNAMENT HISTORY: Portugal has qualified for each of the previous four tournaments after making only two of the previous nine. The best run came in 2006, when they sealed a fourth-place finish, while their most recent World Cup finished in group stage elimination behind the U.S. and Germany
OUTLOOK: With Ronaldo leading the way, Portugal will always have a chance, especially with the confidence built up throughout the Euro 2016 run. This team, though, is quite different as young options like Andre Silva, Bernardo Silva, Gelson Martins and Goncalo Guedes have grown into their own as attacking players. If Ronaldo can get some help from the young faces and familiar ones like Ricardo Quaresma and Joao Moutinho, the Portugal attack should cause plenty of problems in Russia. The questions, though, lie in defense as an aging Pepe will lead a backline that appears to be out of form. Either Jose Fonte or Bruno Alves will have to step up in central defense just enough for Ronaldo to lead the charge through a deep run.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Isco, David de Gea, Sergio Ramos, Diego Costa
TOURNAMENT HISTORY: The 2010 World Cup champions have made each of the previous 10 tournaments with mixed results throughout their history. Following up on the historic 2010 triumph, the 2014 tournament was much less kind to Spain, who crashed out in the group stage with two losses.
OUTLOOK: Boasting arguably the deepest and most talented midfield in the competition, Spain is going to do what Spain does. Players like Isco, Koke, Thiago, Andres Iniesta and Marco Asensio are dangerous and technical, giving manager Julen Lopetegui a variety of options to mix and match ahead of Sergio Busquets. In defense, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos return yet again while David de Gea is probably the best goalkeeper in the world at this point. The big issue, as usual, is at forward, where Diego Costa joins Rodrigo and Iago Aspas. Costa has been inconsistent in a Spain jersey while Aspas and Rodrigo combine for 14 caps. Spain will keep the ball and probably keep it out of their own net, but can they score?
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Hakim Ziyech, Amine Harit, Mehdi Benatia, Nordin Amrabat
TOURNAMENT HISTORY: Morocco is set to play in a World Cup for the first time since 1998, marking the country’s fifth ever trip to the competition. Only once, though, has Morocco advanced out of the group stage as the country combines for a 2-7-4 record in World Cup play.
OUTLOOK: Morocco’s strength is in the attack, especially considering the talented playmakers that headline the squad. Ajax’s Ziyech opted for Morocco over the Netherlands and has breakout star potential while Schalke’s 20-year-old star Harit is a skillful and dangerous winger that provides plenty of fun on the wing. Defensively, Benatia is a solid anchor that is coming off of a very good season with Juventus. Morocco conceded just once in qualifying, but, here are concerns with those around Benatia, starting with inexperienced goalkeeper Munir Mohand Mohamedi. Morocco’s hopes will all but come down to their opening match, as a win over Iran could be a springboard towards a surprising upset of the two favorites.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Sardar Azmoun, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Karim Ansarifard, Reza Ghoochannejhad
TOURNAMENT HISTORY: The 2018 tournament is Iran’s fifth but it is also the first time the country has qualified for back-to-back World Cups. Iran went winless back in 2014 and has only won one World Cup match out of 12.
OUTLOOK: Iran’s biggest strengths are in attack. Jahanbakhsh is fresh off a standout season with AZ Alkmaar that saw the winger score 22 goals in all competitions. Add in Rubin Kazan striker Azmoun and Olympiakos’ Ansarifard and Iran has a solid attack that should create some chances. Defensively, though, Iran is certainly a bit weaker with a majority of the backline playing in the domestic league. Iran is likely to play a counter-attacking style, especially against the group’s heavy-hitters, making it vital that their attack takes advantage of limited chances.
SBI PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Spain. You know what to expect from Spain, who have the talent to make a deep run once again.
2. Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo remains Cristiano Ronaldo, giving Portugal a realistic chance at making waves in the knockout rounds.
3. Morocco. Certainly a solid upset pick due to the options in the attack, Morrocco will need defenders other than Benatia to reach another level.
4. Iran. It’s hard to expect too much from Iran, who would be happy to get a point or two.
The group will almost certainly come down to a battle between Portugal and Spain, making that tournament-opener vital for two teams with sights set on deep runs. It’s not a complete formality, though, as Morocco does have the ability and the talent to create some problems for the two frontrunners. The favorites are the favorites for a reason, but look for Morocco to at least challenge two of Europe’s elite before the group stage is over.
How do you see Group B shaping up? Who do you see making a push for the knockout rounds?
Share your thoughts below.