Tough World Cup group has Morocco, Iran grasp­ing at straws

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - WORLD CUP -

SAINT PETERS­BURG, Rus­sia: A luck­less draw has se­verely dented Morocco and Iran’s hopes of mak­ing a mark at the World Cup be­fore a ball has been kicked, and they head into their open­ing match in St. Peters­burg Fri­day know­ing de­feat could likely mean an early exit.

Reign­ing Euro­pean cham­pi­ons Por­tu­gal and 2010 World Cup win­ners Spain are the other two teams in Group B and are over­whelm­ing fa­vorites to progress to the knock­out stages. Ap­pear­ing at con­sec­u­tive World Cups for the first time, the Ira­ni­ans are the top team from Asia and have ben­e­fited from a pe­riod of sta­bil­ity un­der Por­tuguese coach Car­los Queiroz, who took them to Brazil four years ago.

The 65-year-old’s prepa­ra­tions for Rus­sia, how­ever, have been dis­rupted by un­wel­come dis­trac­tions, such as Nike’s re­fusal to sup­ply boots to his play­ers due to the U.S. sanc­tions against Iran and the can­cel­la­tion of two warmup matches this month.

“Iran have been drawn in the hard­est group in the World Cup and we needed more prepa­ra­tion,” said Queiroz, who will end his sev­enyear stint as man­ager af­ter the tour­na­ment. On the pitch, Iran are with­out de­fen­sive mid­fielder Saeid Eza­to­lahi, who is sus­pended for the first match. His work rate and in­tel­li­gence will be sorely missed as ‘Team Melli’ try and plot a path to a sec­ond vic­tory at their fifth appearance at a World Cup.

Iran breezed through qual­i­fy­ing with 12 clean sheets and were the sec­ond team to book their place in Rus­sia be­hind Brazil, but doubts loom over the form of first-choice goal­keeper Alireza Beiran­vand.

On the other hand, for­wards Alireza Ja­han­bakhsh, Sa­man Ghod­dos, Karim An­sar­i­fard, Sar­dar Az­moun and Me­hdi Taremi are in good form, and Iran will need ev­ery bit of their at­tack­ing verve if they are to trou­ble a quite well-mar­shalled Moroc­can de­fense.

Just like Iran, the “At­las Lions” team are play­ing in their fifth World Cup, but Morocco’s last appearance was two decades ago, at the 1998

Pre­vi­ous meet­ings:

edi­tion in France.

Led by Ju­ven­tus cen­ter-back Me­hdi Be­na­tia, Morocco came through qual­i­fy­ing with­out con­ced­ing a goal and have four wins and a draw in their last five matches.

The team ben­e­fits from hav­ing a num­ber of play­ers in Eu­rope’s top leagues and are coached by French­man

Iran en­ter the World Cup as one of the high­est-ranked teams in Asia, oc­cu­py­ing 37th place in the FIFA world rank­ings while Morocco are in 41st place.

Iran have qual­i­fied for the con­sec­u­tive World Cups for the first time, while Morocco are back at the fi­nals for the first time since 1998. Both teams are mak­ing their fifth appearance at a World Cup. Morocco pro­gressed be­yond the group stages in 1986, top­ping a group that con­tained Eng­land, Poland and Por­tu­gal, while Iran have never reached the last-16.

Morocco are un­beaten in their last five games, with four wins and a draw, while Iran’s prepa­ra­tion has been dis­rupted by the can­cel­la­tion of two friendly matches. They won their fi­nal warmup match against Lithua­nia 1-0.

The sides have never met be­fore in official com­pe­ti­tion. – Herve Re­nard, who has in­stilled a great deal of tac­ti­cal dis­ci­pline into the side.

Veteran mid­field­ers Mbark Bous­so­ufa and Karim El Ah­madi shield the back four, while Re­nard’s big­gest offensive weapon is Dutch­born play­maker Hakim Ziyech.

Ziyech, who plays for Ajax, was named Dutch foot­baller of the year and has an eye for the spec­tac­u­lar. He is well com­ple­mented by French-born mid­fielder Younes Bel­handa, and both were on tar­get in Morocco’s 31 win over Es­to­nia in their fi­nal warmup match ear­lier this month.

The North African na­tion’s most ob­vi­ous weak­ness is in goal, as firstchoice keeper Mu­nir Mo­hamedi has barely fea­tured for sec­ond di­vi­sion Span­ish side Nu­man­cia all sea­son.

Re­nard’s team will find it a tall or­der to es­cape the group, but can take com­fort from the fact that Morocco was the first African coun­try to ever get past the open­ing round at a World Cup.

When they achieved that feat in 1986, they did it in style, top­ping a group that in­cluded Eng­land, Poland and Por­tu­gal. –

Iran coach Queiroz will end his seven-year stint as man­ager af­ter the tour­na­ment.

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