Let’s talk about group B.
Group B is a group of mystery and suspense – just kidding. We all know what’s going to happen in this group, and the only uncertainty is that we don’t know who’s going to be sitting at the top of the table when June ends. Portugal and Spain are both title challengers, and they’re going to go all in in their first group stage game as they face each other because the winner of this game will basically secure the B1 position. Playing against Uruguay in round of 16 can be tricky, so being the leader in this group will be strategically beneficial. (There is a distinct possibility that Uruguay may end up at A2, but we’re going to omit this situation here.) For Morocco and Iran, however, making it into the World Cup is already an awesome achievement. I’d say their job is just to enjoy the games and Vodkas as much as possible.
Similar to Saudi Arabia, Iran is a strong and consistent team coming out of the AFC. However, I believe that coming into the world cup, This Iran team is much stronger than Saudi Arabia, and is arguably the best Asian team in this tournament. (Japan and Iran are basically at the same level, it is hard to say which one’s better. Australia this year is not at their level to be honest: they have a very solid defense but their weakness on the offensive side is a big problem. I’ll discuss that in my later articles.)
Iran always have some really good players. In the late 1990s they have this insanely good striker Ali Daei, who is still holding the record of most international goals scored. In the 2000s Mehdi Mahdavikia and Ali Karimi were the two biggest stars for the team. Both players played in Bundesliga: Mahdavikia spent most of his professional career playing for Hamburg, while Karimi played for Bayern Munich between 2005 and 2007. Both players dominated in Asian competitions and showed their talent in club games in Europe, but were really underappreciated outside of Asia. I think that the general impression that Asian players are worse than European players certainly affected the development of players like Karimi. Although the impression sometimes gives us correct judgments, but it is certainly disadvantageous and very harmful for Asian players and teams that are trying to catch up.
So please, when I say Sardar Azmoun of this Iran team is really good and has the potential to be a star player in the future, don’t assume that he’ll be worse than Cutrone or Mayoral. Azmoun is an extremely creative striker that can create opportunities for his team under pretty much any circumstance. I think this World Cup is going to be a perfect opportunity for him to shine, and hopefully he can achieve more than what Mahdavikia and Karimi have achieved.
With Azmoun’s talent, Iran’s frontline will be flexible and unpredictable. Iran’s manager Carlos Queiroz, who has worked with Sir Alex Ferguson in Manchester United before, will always have the option of putting Azmoun in the front as a lone striker, and supporting him with 2 or 3 attacking midfielders. But it is more likely that he is going to play a classic 4-4-2 to ensure a balanced formation.
However, beating Portugal or Spain is going to be almost impossible for this Iran squad. They need a miracle to fight their way out of this group. I think they’re going to get the 3rd place of this group just because they’ll concede less goals than Morocco will.
I barely knew a thing about this Morocco team. To be more accurate, I only knew Belhanda and Benatia of this team before doing some panic research. I didn’t even know Benatia comes from Morocco. (This made me feel so stupid.) So this preview is going to have less reference value. I sincerely apologize for that.
I do know that Belhanda is a really good midfielder that can control the tempo for his team. He has good vision and ball playing skills. The problem is that in Galatasaray he plays along with Feghouli and Fernando, but in Morocco he will have no helper with Feghouli or Fernando’s caliber. I don’t think he can energize Morocco’s midfield single-handedly, so I would expect Morocco’s midfield to be a typical example of nonexistence.
Similar to their midfield, Morocco’s defense is pretty much also a one-man show. Benatia, who has played for Bayern Munich and Juventus, is definitely ranked at the top of tier 2 defenders in the world. (Or, say, arguably at the bottom of tier 1 defenders.) He is Morocco’s only hope to keep Cristiano Ronaldo or Diego Costa from scoring against them, and that hope is not very realistic. However, I don’t expect Portugal to win over Morocco by a big margin because Portugal’s offense is relatively monotonic and some studying after the first game should slow them down for a bit. But Morocco are going to lose to Portugal, and are going to lose to Spain badly. They may even lose to Iran, but I don’t want to be too mean. I would prefer Morocco to secure a draw against Iran, although deep down in my heart I know that Iran the better team of the two.
With Cristiano Ronaldo, anything is possible except for getting eliminated in the group stage in World Cup 2018.
I would like to describe this Portugal team as a proper title challenger. I think their EURO 2016 victory can definitely take them to a whole new level because the experience of being a champion gives you guidance, confidence and motivation: that you know what to do to win the game in different situations, you set up higher standards for yourself and your teammates in trainings and in games, and you want to win more trophies because after winning one trophy winning another one no longer seems impossible. Their EURO 2016 victory can also be the fundamental factor that drives them to build up a real force: we can expect them to stay in top 5 on FIFA rankings for a long time, if they really learned a lot from their journey in that tournament.
However, things can also go the other way because they have Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo is the center of this team, he outshines everyone, and his teammates are all playing under his shadow. It is problematic because although his teammates are all decent players, they all tend to underperform when Ronaldo’s on the pitch. Sometimes it looks like players such as Quaresma and Moutinho are having less space in front of the opponent’s box and are taking less responsibilities when it comes to controlling tempo and creating chances: they may be too lazy to think because they’ll always have the option of passing the ball to Ronaldo then let him figure out what to do with it. Fortunately we’re seeing less of these lazy passes in the European Qualifiers and this Portugal team looks decently synchronized, yet their offense is still lack of tactical diversity and creativity from other players.
Portugal is most likely to play a regular 4-4-2 against Morocco and Iran, but I think they’ll switch to 4-3-3 against Spain to provide more support for Ronaldo. Their back 4 is structured; Pepe will be leading the line. Jose Fonte to me is the weakest link of this Portugal team. He is not the Jose Fonte in Southampton anymore. He’s so washed up. Judging from his performances in China, he’s now slow and conservative. I won’t be surprised to see him hesitate when trying to make crucial tackles or fail to mark his man tightly. In the midfield they really have some young talents. Bernardo Silva and Guedes have silky touches and can provide deadly passes. It will be important for Portugal’s manager to make sure that they step up and play their regular game instead of seeing their spaces squeezed because of Ronaldo’s existence and just playing easy brainless balls sideways.
Portugal will qualify easily to the knockout round but I don’t think they’ll finish as B1. Spain is having some issues now but they’re just tactically superior. But battling Spain early can be an advantage for Portugal coming into round of 16, as the players will be less tired and more used to playing against tough opponents. I think Portugal has a chance to go really far in this tournament.
Teams from La Liga’ve been dominating European football for a very long time. Real Madrid just won the Champions League 3 years in a row, and despite a shocking exit in the European competition, Barcelona actually looks like a better team than their rival this year, achieving success domestically. Although the best player from Barcelona and the best player from Real Madrid are not from Spain, Spain still have top quality players in all areas. Think about these big names: Diego Costa, David Silva, Iniesta, Isco, Pique, De Gea… You really can’t say that this team is not one of the favorites to win.
There’s another very big advantage for Spain: most of the players come from La Liga, and a good amount of players even come from the same team. 4 players are from Barcelona (including Iniesta), 3 are from Atletico, and 6 are from Real Madrid. Back in 2010 when Spain won it in South Africa, 10 of their starting XI were from either Barcelona or Real Madrid. Capdevila was the lonely man who was playing for Villarreal at the time. It may be dubious but it looks like having players coming from the same team/league can be beneficial. Spain and Germany are the two big examples that support this theory, and the Argentina team kind of prove it from another angle, as their attacking players are playing in different leagues, which may be a reason why their frontline is so messy.
However just before the World Cup starts Spain decided to replace their manager Lopetegui with Hierro because of Real Madrid and Lopetegui’s irresponsible announcement. I think it is the right thing for them to do, but it is very harmful at the same time. It is the right decision because Lopetegui will definitely be distracted by club affairs, and Barcelona players will probably feel less comfortable playing under his directions, but it is harmful because changing manager can cause huge instability within the team, and may negatively affect game preparations. In my opinion, this move will make this Spain squad much weaker, but since Spain is already in the leading position in player quality and tactics, and since Hierro knows Spanish football too well, the damage of this move will be smaller than what people think it will deal.
Hierro will probably stick with Lopetegui’s undefeted 4-2-3-1 in group stage games against Iran and Morocco, but he might switch to 4-3-3 when facing stronger opponents. 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 are the two main formations for Spain for a very long time, so I don’t think we’ll see any significant change in formation from this team in this tournament. Diego Costa will be the one who scores most of Spain’s goals, and if he gets lucky he has a good chance of claiming the golden boot of World Cup 2018. Iniesta and David Silva will support Costa with their magic, but I think Koke and Saul will get some chances to impress once Iniesta gets tired. Pique, Ramos, Carvajal and Alba will be the back 4. It is one of the best backlines in this tournament, but you never know when will Pique or Ramos make stupid mistakes. Spain also have the best goalkeeper in the world, David De Gea, so it’ll be hard for any team to score on them.
I don’t want to see Spain lifting the trophy this summer because I am supporting Brazil and England, but if Hierro knows what he’s doing and reduces the damage caused by Lopetegui’s irresponsible decision to a minimal, then they have a really good chance of winning it.
Portugal 0-3 Spain
Iran 1-1 Morocco
Portugal 1-0 Morocco
Spain 3-1 Iran
Spain 2-0 Morocco
Iran 0-1 Portugal