football

World Cup Preview: Group B

June 08, 2018

- Grant Whittington

As the excitement surrounding the 2018 World Cup reaches fever pitch, fans and teams are heading to Russia in droves. As part of our preparation for the 21st iteration of the tournament, we’re reviewing the eight individual qualification groups and predicting which sides are likely to prevail. Today, we’ll appraise the portents for Group B and consider which two teams are likely to reach the knockout stages.

Spain
We start our Group B preview appropriately with Spain, who are currently priced as 3/1 third favourites to win the World Cup.

Much of this optimism is based on the progress that the nation has made under the astute stewardship of Julen Lopetegui, as well as the fact that Spain qualified for the World Cup by winning 10 of their nine matches while plundering 36 goals in the process.

Once renowned as genuine underachievers on the international stage, Spain won the World Cup as recently as 2010 during a halcyon period in their history. This triumph was sandwich by two European Championship successes, although the nation came crashing back down to earth after a group stage elimination in Brazil four years ago.

This will be Spain’s 14th appearance at the finals, and they’ll kick off their campaign with a potentially decisive match against Portugal at the Fisht Olympic Stadium on 15th June. This will be followed by fixtures against Iran and Morocco on 20th and 25th June respectively, and regardless of the result against the Iberian Peninsula rivals, they’ll expect to qualify for the second round.

The Spaniards certainly boast one the best and most talented squads of any competing nation, from star goalkeeper David De Gea to players such as David Silva, Gerard Pique and the retiring Andres Iniesta. The technically brilliant Isco is also poised to come of age in Russia, as Spain’s chief playmaker in the final third.

Our Verdict: Although Spain have slight issues in attack (Alvaro Morata is out of form and Diego Costa has clashed regularly with Lopetegui), the depth and quality of their squad makes them a force to reckoned with. Spain will also enter the tournament with some considerable momentum, and we’re backing them to pip Portugal to first place in the group.

Portugal
Portugal are renowned as slow starters at major tournaments, losing their opening match to Greece when hosting the 2004 Euros and failing to win a single group stage game despite ultimately winning Euro 2016 in France.

As a result, we expect Portugal to be at a competitive disadvantage when they meet Spain in Sochi in their opening game. Still, they should have more than enough to edge out Morocco and Iran in their remaining fixtures, which will take place on 20th and 25th June respectively.

Despite reaching two of the last four European Championship finals, Portugal have often failed to deceive at the World Cup and achieved their best finish when finishing third in 1966 (they were beaten by England in the semi-finals). They also failed to progress beyond the group stages in 2014, finishing a disappointing third behind Germany and, more surprisingly, USA.

This will be their seventh appearance at the finals, and the fact that they’ll arrive as European Champions affords them additional gravitas.

The prolific Cristiano Ronaldo will lead the Portuguese charge in Russia, having scored a staggering 15 goals in qualification and 81 in 149 caps overall. The 33-year old has often failed to deliver on the world stage though, scoring a single goal and no more in each tournament since 2006 (three in total).

AC Milan playmaker Andre Silva should provide some support this time around, having notched a respectable nine goals during qualification. The Portuguese are also increasingly reliant on the powerful William Carvalho in midfield, with the Sporting CB star excellent at breaking up opposition attacks and feeding the front line.

Our Verdict: While Portugal may be slow starters, they have an experienced squad and disciplined playing style that enables them to grind out results without playing particularly well. They should certainly have more than enough to qualify from Group B regardless of their result against Spain, while at odds of 25/1 they offer genuine value as an outside bet for the tournament.

Morocco
While few fancy Morocco to go far in Russia, they retain the side most likely to challenge Spain and Portugal in Group B. The 1976 AFCON winners will be appearing in their fifth World Cup finals and hoping to emulate their achievements of 1986 by qualifying for the knockout stage.

Interestingly, Morocco qualified having lost just one of their eight games in total, scoring 13 goals and conceding just one (although they did draw three of their group stage matches 0-0).

Morocco haven’t appeared in the finals for 20 years, and victory in their opening game against Iran in St. Petersburg on 15th June will be crucial if they’re going to prevail. They’ll then do battle against Portugal and Spain in Moscow and Kaliningrad respectively, hoping to pick up at least one point from these games to remain competitive.

While Hervé Renard’s team is renowned for its defensive resilience and being extremely well-organised, it also includes several individuals who can affect games in the attacking third.  Turkish Süper Lig star Khalid Boutaïb is a talented striker who scored four goals during qualifying, for example, while Southampton’s gifted forward Sofiane Boufal can create something out of nothing.

Our Verdict: With Juventus star and skipper Medhi Benatia also marshalling a stingy back-line with aplomb, Morocco certainly have the tools to upset their more illustrious rivals in Group B. The key will lie with them beating Iran in their opening game, while they must defend and counter-attack with genuine efficiency if they’re to claim one of the two available qualifying places.

Iran
Iran are the rank outsiders to qualify from Group B, with odds of 33/1 highlighting the challenge in front of them. Like Morocco, the nation will also be appearing in their fifth World Cup finals, although they have a better recent record than the Lions of the Atlas, having qualified for the two of the last three of the tournament’s iterations (2006 and 2014).

However, Iran have won just one game at a World Cup final, beating USA 2-1 at Lyon’s Stade de Gerland during a highly politicised contest in 1998.

This should not detract from a solid qualification campaign, however, as Iran topped their group unbeaten and with 22 points from 10 matches. They finished above South Korea in the process and conceded just two goals overall.

Under the experienced stewardship of former Real Madrid coach Carlos Queiroz, Iran will launch their Group B campaign against fellow underdogs Morocco in St. Petersburg in what is sure to be a cagey affair. After all, both sides know that a victory will be required to maintain a realistic chance of reaching the knockout rounds, with they also rely on staunch defence rather than blistering attacking play.

They do possess a threat in Rubin Kazan’s Sardar Azmoun, of course, with the precocious 23-year-old having scored seven goals in qualifying and 22 for his country since his debut. Mehdi Taremi of

Al-Gharafa is Azmoun’s partner in attack, and this pairing boasts enough pace and movement to trouble any defence on the counter.

Our Verdict: While Iran are the rank outsiders of the group, they are a capable side that is extremely well-organised and capable in the final third. They’ll need to beat Morocco in their Group B opener to stand any chance of qualification, and the North African’s superior quality and greater experience may prove to be the telling factor.

 

 

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