Another twohorse race
Two European heavyweights — 2010 champion Spain and reigning continental champion Portugal — have been drawn together, and what better way to start the group engagements than with the two facing off at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi on June 15 in what is probably the most soughtafter match in the group stages. Iran and Morocco provide variety to this group, which promises a lot of nice contests if all four sides are able to perform to their potential.
The 2010 champion is one of the contenders for the Cup under new coach Julen Lopetegui. The managerial change from Vicente del Bosque to Lopetegui has somewhat reinvigorated the side after its unceremonious exits in the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championship, where it failed to defend either crown.
Ever since his appointment as Spain’s new coach, the 51yearold Lopetegui seems to have instilled pride in a side that dominated world football in the first half of the decade. Under him, Spain won 13 and drew six of the
19 games the side has played till
On the tactical front, the essential change that Lopetegui forged was altering from the famous 433 system to a more conservative 451 formation as the team failed to find quality wingers. Lopetegui’s biggest challenge will be in improvising to have the best selection that could replicate some of the excellence it reached under del Bosque. The team has some new names, but Lopetegui will be hoping for a fair bit of contribution from the likes of Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos, David Silva and Pepe Reina – the four survivors of the EURO 2008 titlewinning side. Among the youngsters are Marco Asensio and Alvaro Odriozola, who have already made their mark in club football.
Goalkeepers: David de Gea, Pepe Reina, Kepa
Defenders: Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Cesar Azpilicueta, Dani Carvajal, Nacho, Alvaro Odriozola, Nacho Monreal.
Midfielders: Andres Iniesta, Koke, Isco, Thiago, Marco Asensio, Saul, David Silva, Sergio Busquets.
Forwards: Diego Costa, Iago Aspas, Lucas Vazquez, Rodrigo.
World Cup record
Champion in 2010
Portugal has a lot of reasons to feel confident in Russia. It won the EURO 2016 title before securing third place in the 2017 Confederations Cup, where Fernando Santos’ side defeated Mexico in the playoff at the Otkritie Arena in Moscow. Taking over in 2014, Santos has transformed an average group of players into a fairly strong team. Portugal is definitely enjoying one of the best phases of excellence and is one side that is extremely hard to beat. And its resurgence has hinged on the charisma and brilliance of one of the greatest players in history – Cristiano Ronaldo, the owner of five Ballon d’or titles. Portugal generally plays a conservative 442 system with its approach shaped on a defensive game. But with Ronaldo inspiring its attack, it has been quite prolific in offence – the side scored 32 goals while conceding only four in the qualifiers.
Goalkeepers: Anthony Lopes, Beto, Rui Patricio.
Defenders: Bruno Alves, Cedric Soares, Jose Fonte, Mario Rui, Pepe, Raphael Guerreiro, Ricardo Pereira, Ruben Dias.
Midfielders: Adrien Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Mario,
Joao Moutinho, Manuel Fernandes, William Carvalho. Forwards: Andre Silva, Bernardo Silva, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gelson Martins, Goncalo Guedes, Ricardo Quaresma. World Cup record: 6 appearances
Third place in 1966
The Asian powerhouse will be eager to prove itself after qualifying for backtoback World Cups. The strength of the team
can be assessed from the fact it possesses a solid defence that conceded just five goals in 18 qualifying games. Shaping up well under Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz, who has been with the side for the last seven years, Iran has an equally good attack that boasting of some of the continent’s finest for wards. It is a team that can cause upsets with the likes of winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Sardar Azmoun and playmaker Saeid Ezatolahi.
Goalkeepers: Alireza Beiranvand, Rashid Mazaheri, Amir Abedzadeh.
Defenders: Ramin Rezaeian, Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh, Morteza Pouraliganji, Pejman Montazeri, Majid Hosseini, Milad Mohammadi, Roozbeh Cheshmi.
Midfielders: Saeid Ezatolahi, Masoud Shojaei, Saman Ghoddos, Mahdi Torabi, Ashkan Dejagah, Omid Ebrahimi, Ali Gholizadeh, Vahid Amiri.
Forwards: Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Karim Ansarifard, Mahdi Taremi, Sardar Azmoun, Reza Ghoochannejhad.
World Cup record
Has never progressed past the group stage
Morocco returns to the World Cup finals 20 years after its last outing – at France 1998. Its best finish to date was in 1986, when it went beyond the first round before losing 10 to West Germany in the round of 16 following an 88thminute goal by Lothar Matthaus. The Atlas Lions exited in the group stage in each of its other three appearances. Morocco has contested 13 matches in the World Cup, posting two wins, four draws and seven defeats. Interestingly, all the positive results (two wins and four draws) came against European sides, notably a 31 win over Portugal in 1986 and a 30 success over Scotland in 1998. The North African team packs quite a few young talents, including Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda, who plays for Galatasaray.
Goalkeepers: Mounir El Kajoui, Yassine Bounou, Ahmad Reda Tagnaouti.
Defenders: Mehdi Benatia, Romain Saiss, Manuel Da Costa, Badr Benoun, Nabil Dirar, Achraf Hakimi, Hamza Mendyl.
Midfielders: M’bark Boussoufa, Karim El Ahmadi, Youssef Ait Bennasser, Sofyan Amrabat, Younes Belhanda, Faycal Fajr, Amine Harit.
Forwards: Khalid Boutaib, Aziz Bouhaddouz, Ayoub El Kaabi, Nordin Amrabat, Mehdi Carcela, Hakim Ziyech..
World Cup record: 4 appearances
Round of 16 in 1986
Top contender: The managerial change from Vicente del Bosque to Julen Lopetegui has somewhat reinvigorated Spain after its unceremonious exits in the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championship, where it failed to defend either crown.
Inspired lot: Portugal will depend on its skipper Cristiano Ronaldo to provide spunk to its campaign.
Consistent performance: Iran, the Asian powerhouse, will be eager to prove itself after qualifying for backtoback World Cups.