World Cup 2018

World Cup preview: does La Roja’s loco week blow Group B wide open?

 • by Matt Gault
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Chaos in Krasnodar. Shades of Saipan. Football’s Spanish Civil War.

Yes, just as everyone geared up for a relatively unstimulating start to the World Cup with hosts Russia taking on Saudi Arabia in Thursday’s curtain-raiser, Spain were suddenly found themselves spiralling into meltdown mode.

24 hours after news that he was set to succeed Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid – and 48 hours before taking charge of Spain’s opener, against Portugal – Julen Lopetegui was sacked by the Spanish FA.

Now, an already interesting group has just been blown wide open as Fernando Hierro steps in to try and steady the ship for the 2010 World Cup winners.

Portugal, Iran and Morocco, the other three participants in Group B, perhaps once trembled at the prospect of facing Spain, but now can’t wait to get going and see if they can send La Roja crashing out early like the Netherlands, Chile and Australia managed to do in 2014.

Spain

There is nowhere else to start. Spain, having been tipped as one of the favourites after having successfully extinguished the pain of their early exits from the last two international tournaments to breeze through qualifying and rekindle hopes of a second World Cup in three attempts.

Of course, Lopetegui – appointed in June 2016 following Vicente del Bosque’s retirement – had been key to that resurgence. The 51-year-old skilfully ensured that the transition through the post-del Bosque era was a smooth one.

He had been a shrewd appointment, as someone who had an intricate knowledge of the inner-workings of the national team from his time coaching Spain’s U19, U20 and U21 sides, from which he had experience of working with several of the players in the current senior set-up.

Lopetegui restored a sense of fluency and cohesion to Spain after a disappointing Euro 2016 campaign only for pre-tournament optimism to be shattered by Spanish FA president Luis Rubiales’ remarkable decision to sack the former Porto boss on the eve of the tournament.

Fittingly, the astonishing development happened four years to the day after another dark La Roja World Cup memory when the Netherlands, inspired by a physics-defying Robin van Persie, pummeled them 5-1.

It’s important to remember, of course, that unless Lopetegui’s departure triggers a players revolt à la France in 2010, Spain still possess one of the finest squads at the tournament. They also boast, in David Silva, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué, an enviable wealth of experience which should stand them in good stead over the next few weeks.

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Key stats

To no one’s surprise, Spain averaged more passes per 90 minutes than any other nation in qualifying across all federations with 772. They also averaged 7.4 recoveries in the attacking third per game.

They have been solid at the back, too, aided by the outstanding David De Gea and the experience of defensive partners Piqué and Ramos, who have 247 caps between them. Spain conceded the third-least scoring attempts with 6.1 per game, behind only Portugal and France.

Key player

Iniesta and Silva remain highly influential but this feels as though it could be Isco’s tournament.

While helping Real Madrid to a hat-trick of Champions League titles, Isco has mirrored his upward trajectory on the international stage, scoring five goals during qualifying to cement his place in the side.

He is responsible for often giving Spain their forward momentum, as evidenced by his 4.28 successful take-ons per 90 in qualifying.

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Portugal

Hoping to capitalise on the wreckage of Spain’s week are the European champions Portugal, captained by Cristiano Ronaldo, who had probably been expecting to meet his new club manager on Friday night during the post-match handshakes.

With barely a whiff of controversy to speak of in their camp, Fernando Santos is hoping that Portugal’s comparatively serene preparations will prove decisive when his side take on La Roja at Fisht Stadium on Friday evening.

The last time the Iberian neighbours met each other, it was the Euro 2012 semi-final and 120 long minutes in Donetsk had failed to yield a goal. Spain prevailed in the shootout and advanced to the final, where they beat Italy to clinch an unprecedented treble of tournament triumphs, and Portugal will almost certainly have revenge on their minds in Sochi.

Forgetting Spain for a moment, Portugal have had a mixed run-up to the tournament. Having secured qualification with nine wins from ten games, Santos’ side have played seven friendlies, with three wins, three draws and a defeat to show for their efforts.

Although they eased past Algeria 3-0 last time out, a drab scoreless draw and a 3-0 thumping by a Netherlands side who failed to qualify were not the resounding endorsements of World Cup credentials their fans had been hoping for.

However, it’s foolish to underestimate a team with Cristiano Ronaldo.

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Key stats

Despite Bruno Alves, Pepe and José Fonte having a combined age of 105, Portugal remain solid at the back. Of all the qualified European nations, the European champions have conceded the least scoring attempts with 5.2 per game.

However, as resilient and well-drilled as ever, they only conceded 0.1 big chances per game, the best of the qualified 32. They’ll be a tough nut to crack, regardless of the opposition.

Key player

It’s difficult for anyone to match the influence and importance of a player like Ronaldo. Having just earned his 150th cap, the five-times Ballon d’Or winner is determined to clinch the only piece of silverware missing from his cabinet. At 33, you’d imagine it will be Ronaldo’s final World Cup – at least the last in which he plays a prominent role – so he will be determined to go out with a bang.

The 33-year-old was devastating in qualifying, with a better goal per 90 ratio (1.76) than any other player. Impressive stuff, but whether he can replicate such an assured touch in Russia remains to be seen.

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Morocco

Having just been edged by the USA, Canada and Mexico for the right to host the 2026 World Cup should have little bearing on Morocco’s players, many of whom won’t be a part of the national team in eight years’ time anyway.

Coached by suave Frenchman Hervé Renard, who led both Zambia and Ivory Coast to Africa Cup of Nations titles, Morocco are a solid defensive unit and, what they lack in prolific strikers, they make up for in nimble-footed attacking midfielders.

The Atlas Lions sailed through qualifying unbeaten and without conceding a goal but, with Spain and Portugal to come, much tougher examinations lie ahead.

Renard’s side have pedigree, though, with Juventus’ Medhi Benatia leading the defence and exciting Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech serving as the playmaker-in-chief. Achraf Hakimi will be one to watch, too, having broken into the Real Madrid first-team aged just 18 this year.

Back in the World Cup after a 20-year absence, Morocco were unfortunate to be drawn in the same group as both Spain and Portugal but, as a solid, well-organised unit, do not expect them to be easily swept aside.

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Key stats

Not only did Morocco keep six straight clean sheets in qualifying, they conceded the fewest scoring attempts of the qualified African nations, too, with 6.37 per 90.

With 4.37 per 90, Renard’s side also won possession in the attacking third more times than any other African country, so they are clearly sharp in attack as well as solid at the back.

Key player

Ziyech has a penchant for the spectacular but Benatia is critical to his side’s defensive fortunes. With 54 caps, he is comfortably the most experienced defender and, having won two Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich and two Serie A titles with Juventus, the 31-year-old has the pedigree to stand up to Spain and Portugal’s elite-level attackers.

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Iran

Undoubtedly one of Asia’s strongest teams, Iran’s passage to the World Cup was exceptionally smooth. Unbeaten in their ten qualifiers, they kept nine clean sheets until being breached by Syria, having already secured their place by that stage.

Now seven years in the job, former Real Madrid boss Carlos Queiroz is one of the longest-serving managers at the tournament and has built a counter-attacking team on speedy, technical players.

Having picked up just one point from their three games in Brazil four years ago, Iran can be excused for dreaming bigger. In Sardar Azmoun, they have a player who has been compared – albeit questionably – to Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimović.

Regardless, the forward has scored 23 goals in 33 appearances for his country and is ready to be unleashed in Russia, a country he knows better than most having spent most of his senior career there, with Rostov and Rubin Kazan.

Iran failed to pull up trees in 2014 but they have improved significantly in the intervening four years and could cause the stronger teams in Group B a few headaches.

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Key stats

In Queiroz’s 4-3-3, Iran attack swiftly and often down the flanks, so it’s perhaps no great surprise to see that they average 19.6 crosses per 90. They are quite adept at winning possession back, too, with their 61 ball recoveries per 90 placing them fifth among the 32 qualified teams.

They also made more headed clearances on average than any other side during qualifying with 15.8 per 90. Queiroz’s men are expected to have their backs against the wall in at least two of their group games, so they will almost certainly maintain their average in that category.

Key player

Azmoun is Iran’s most accomplished player. A quick-thinking, quick-moving forward critical to his country’s attack, Azmoun is hoping that he can use the World Cup as a springboard and perhaps attract attention from some of Europe’s top clubs.

Iran have other players of note, though. Alireza Jahanbakhsh was the Eredivisie top scorer during the 2017/18 campaign for AZ Alkmaar, while Swedish-born midfielder Saman Ghoddos starred for Östersunds during their Europa League run last season.

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Standout fixture

It was Portugal v Spain. Now it’s Portugal v Spain with an exclamation point following the latter’s managerial upheaval.

Prediction

  1. Spain
  2. Portugal
  3. Morocco
  4. Iran

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