An­other two­horse race

Sportstar - - GROUP B - AMITABHA DAS SHARMA

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.

SPAIN

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

June 3.

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.

Squad

Goal­keep­ers: David de Gea, Pepe Reina, Kepa

Ar­riz­a­bal­aga.

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

14 ap­pear­ances

Cham­pion in 2010

POR­TU­GAL

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.

Squad

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

IRAN

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.

Squad

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

4 ap­pear­ances

Has never pro­gressed past the group stage

MOROCCO

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.

Squad

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

GETTY IM­AGES

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.

AP

In­spired lot: Por­tu­gal will de­pend on its skip­per Cris­tiano Ron­aldo to pro­vide spunk to its cam­paign.

GETTY IM­AGES

Con­sis­tent per­for­mance: Iran, the Asian pow­er­house, will be ea­ger to prove it­self af­ter qualifying for backto­back World Cups.

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