World Cup 2018’s Group B features goliaths Spain and Portugal, as well as Davids Iran and Morocco. Spain offers a star-studded cast and a breathtakingly-attractive playing style, while the other teams boast some of the most exciting individual talents in the tournament. It should all make for entertaining television, and although the outcomes seem easy to predict, the upset potential in this bracket should not be underestimated. Let’s go in for a closer look.
FIFA Ranking: 36
Filled with foreign-born players with Iranian eligibility, Team Melli won Asia’s Group A, holding their opponents scoreless in the final round of qualifying until the last match. 2018 will see the Iranians in their fifth World Cup finals, including an appearance in Brazil in 2014. However, they’ve won just a single match in all their World Cup history: a 2-1 victory over the United States that eliminated the Americans from the 1998 tournament. In a beautiful example of sport transcending politics, despite two decades of tension between their two governments, the Iranians and Americans exchanged gifts and flowers and posed for a group photo, and played out the match with civility. The French riot police who had been placed on standby were never needed.
There is political controversy again this time, however, as two players who were supposedly banned for life from the Iranian national team were named to the 2018 squad that is bound for Russia. Iran does not recognize Israel and forbids its athletes from competing against players from the Jewish state. Masoud Sojaei and Ehsan Haji Safi defied this rule last summer by suiting up against Maccabi Tel Aviv for their Greek club team, Panionios. Fans were outraged at the prospect of a ban though, and it seems that the Iranian government has relented and allowed manager Carlos Quieroz to have his men.
Quieroz has been at the helm of Team Melli since 2011. He has twice run the Portuguese national team and also led the national teams of the United Arab Emirates and South Africa. His club management history includes two stints as an assistant at Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, where he worked with Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and a teenaged Cristiano Ronaldo. And Quieroz has held head gaffer jobs at Sporting CP and Real Madrid, where he worked with Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo (the first one!), Luís Figo, and David Beckham. In short, Quieroz is the real deal with a sterling managerial pedigree.
How They Play
Iran will park the bus and counter. That is a formula that can stymie superior teams: In the 2014 World Cup, Iran kept Lionel Messi at bay for 91 minutes before Leo’s late goal finally won the game for Argentina. Against Spain and Portugal they’ll keep 10 players behind the ball while looking for opportunities to break out. Boring, yes, but also pragmatic. Team Melli simply doesn’t have the class to play open football against the kind of opposition they’ll face at this level.
Key Fantasy Players
Forwards Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Sardar Azmoun are the catalysts through which Iran’s counterattacks will flow. Jahanbakhsh is a particular talent, having led the Eredivisie in goals this season. Indeed, Russia will likely serve as the shop window for the 24 year-old’s summer transfer from AZ Alkmaar to a larger club (he’s already been linked to Napoli).
Team Melli’s midfield is relatively deficient in talent, so there are no names there that I can recommend for fantasy purposes.
It’s possible Iran’s central defenders could generate decent fantasy returns through statistics like tackles and blocked shots while they bunker down against offensive powerhouses like Portugal and Spain, but I’d only be interested in them as enablers.
FIFA Ranking: 42
Like Iran, Morocco will make its fifth appearance in a World Cup Finals, their last coming twenty years ago. This year’s squad went undefeated in World Cup qualifying, but tied three matches 0-0. Gaffer Herve Renard is the only man to ever lead two different countries to African Cup of Nations championships (Zambia and Ivory Coast). Not only is he blessed with movie-star good looks, but he is also probably the best manager in Africa.
Over 60% of Renard’s players were born in Europe, and there is enough quality in the side to make Morocco legitimate dark-horse contenders for the knockout stage. Interestingly, the only time in Morocco’s World Cup history that they were able to advance beyond the Group Stage was in 1986 when they drew with Poland and England and beat... Portugal! A defeat of Portugal again this year could very well be the recipe for punching their ticket to the Round of 16.
How They Play
Morocco play a possession-based game and press aggressively on defense. They’re favored to win their first game against Iran, so an upset win over Portugal in their second game could see them into the knockout round even if Morocco subsequently fall to Spain. Expect the Atlas Lions to show up ready to swarm the Selecção.
The Key Fantasy Players
One name our readership may have expected to see in Renard’s squad for Russia is Sofiane Boufal. Unfortunately, the 24 year-old Southampton midfielder had a blow-up with club manager Mark Hughes, and hasn’t seen the pitch for the Saints since March. This lack of playing time has now cost him a ticket to the World Cup.
But Morocco has other talents. Striker Ayoub El Kaabi was the leading scorer in this winter’s African Nations Championship. The 24 year-old has 47 goals in 56 club appearances, and 10 goals in 8 caps for Morocco. Admittedly though, it remains to be seen whether he can maintain that kind of goal production against the elite opposition he’ll face in Russia.
Morocco’s team captain, Juventus center back Medhi Benatia, is considered to be one of the best defenders in Serie A and is the rock that anchors his national team’s back four.
And 25 year-old Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech is the most creative player in the Eredivisie and was named this season’s Dutch Footballer of the Year. He led the league in assists and had 50% more key passes than the second-place finisher in that category. His left foot is nasty, and Ziyech has netted 9 times for his club this season, and 8 times in his 15 international caps. As a rumored summer transfer target of Liverpool, Everton, Leicester, Roma, and Borussia Dortmund, Ziyech will be looking to use the World Cup stage to raise the value of his stock. He is definitely one to watch (and own).
FIFA Ranking: 8
The 2010 World Cup Champions suffered a shocking Group Stage exit in the 2104 tournament, and were then eliminated from the 2016 European Championship in the Round of 16. Manager Vicente del Bosque retired immediately after the Euros, and Porto boss Julen Lopetegui was hired to replace him. Spain have not lost a single game of the eighteen they’ve played since.
How They Play
Prior to his job at Porto, Lopetegui headed Spain’s U19, U20, and U21 teams. There he prepared and developed youth players for integration into del Bosque’s senior team system. Consequently, there were no wholesale philosophical changes when the retiring manager turned over the reins. Lopetegui’s team is still based on free-flowing possession and short passing, with quick movement of the ball.
Spain has a midfield stacked with talent, a genuinely world-class back four, and arguably the best goalkeeper on Earth, but Lopetegui has had trouble settling on a starting striker. Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata did not make the cut for the final 23 man roster (neither did his Blues teammates, Pedro and Marcos Alonso), and Diego Costa probably has the edge over Rodrigo for the #9 role at present. But former Liverpool experiment Iago Aspas will also push for consideration: Only Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, and Cristiano Ronaldo scored more La Liga goals than Aspas did this season. Regardless of who starts up top, goals can come from virtually anyone on this team, and the sheer weight of the squad’s talent makes them legitimate contenders to leave Russia with the Cup.
The Key Fantasy Players
David De Gea: The EPL’s Golden Glove winner has been playing out of his mind for Manchester United. He’ll get wins and clean sheets for Spain, but his team’s possession-based style means he may not rack up a ton of save points. It also means that your seemingly sure-bet fantasy GK investment could go sour if he concedes even one goal.
Any of the starting defenders:
A goal threat who takes some set pieces, team captain Sergio Ramos is indisputably one of the game’s all-time greats. He can also be prone to rash challenges, however, and owns the La Liga, Champions League, and Spanish national team records for career cards accumulation.
Silky Gerard Piqué is a safer choice than his discipline-challenged partner, and he helps build Spain’s attack out of the back.
Twenty-nine year-old Jordi Alba has searing pace and is one of the most attack-minded wing backs in the modern game — the kind of defender a fantasy manager loves to own.
And Dani Carvajal is possibly the best right back in world football.
How to decide among these superstars? Well, Shakira chose Piqué, but my fantasy favorites are Ramos and Alba. (I’ll keep my fantasy thoughts on Shakira to myself, thank you very much.)
Any of Spain’s attacking midfielders:
Spain enjoys an embarrassment of riches in midfield, so much so that Lopetegui could not find room in the squad for players such as Cesc Fabregas (yet another Chelsea player who did not make Spain’s cut).
David Silva, Isco, Thiago Alcantara, and Andrés Iniesta are players of immense skill, creativity, and goal threat. And creativity + goals = fantasy gold. The 33 year-old Iniesta has struggled for fitness recently though, and could see his minutes managed.
Marco Asensio is another to watch: the 22 year-old jumped Gareth Bale in the pecking order at Real Madrid and has a blistering shot from distance.
FIFA Ranking: 4
Like Spain, Portugal crashed out of the 2014 World Cup in the group stage. However, Portugal rebounded from that crushing disappointment by winning the European Championship two years later — albeit by grinding out results rather than through the kind of swashbuckling play one might expect from a team headlined by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo. Of the starting 11 from the 2016 Euros final, only Nani and Renato Sanches will not be on the plane bound for Russia next month.
This chance at World Cup gold may be 33 year-old Ronaldo’s last, and although it’s unlikely that Portugal will hoist the Cup at the end of the tournament, he will at least want to finally turn in an individual performance that cements his legacy as one of the greatest players of all time. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner has a dismal record at the World Cup, and has scored only a single goal in each of his three appearances.
How They Play
Manager Fernando Santos tends to batten down the hatches and then wait for a moment or two of attacking brilliance from the sensational Ronaldo. This formula proved effective in the 2016 Euros, where Portugal conceded only one goal in the knockout stages, but the veteran defenders from that tournament are now growing long in the tooth. Pepe, José Fonte, and Bruno Alves have a combined age of 105.
The Key Fantasy Players
Rui Patricio: From the Group Stage on through the Final, Portugal was undefeated and gave up only five goals on its way to winning the 2016 European Championship tournament. Goalkeeper Patricio will be a good fantasy option against the right opposition.
Cedric Soares: The right back will be familiar to NMA managers from his club play at Southampton. His national team manager’s pragmatism should offer the promise of clean sheets to supplement the right back’s potential for crosses, shots on goal, and assists.
Andre Silva: An exciting 22 year-old striker who has developed lethal chemistry with Ronaldo. They’ve combined for 24 goals in World Cup qualifying games.
Bernardo Silva: Another familiar name from the EPL, the Manchester City midfielder is regarded as the biggest talent to come out of Portugal since Ronaldo. That said, Fernando Santos’s conservative system has sometimes failed to bring out Silva’s best.
Cristiano Ronaldo: If you haven’t heard of this guy, you should check him out. He’s pretty good.
Iran and Morocco will both view their opening match against each other as critical, since a victory would position the winner to advance by upsetting one of Spain or Portugal. Expect that opener to be a hot contest, then.
Still, Spain and Portugal must be considered the obvious favorites to advance, with Morocco maybe getting one win but failing to progress, and Iran crashing out without a victory. But if things don’t play out according to the script, it will probably be Morocco who pull off a shocker. They have serious dark horse potential.
And get ready for some unfamiliar names to burst onto the international scene. In particular, I’m very excited to see what Hakim Ziyech can do on the world stage. I believe he is a special talent who is about to introduce himself to a global audience in a big way.
Are you rooting for one of the teams in Group B? Do you think Iran or Morocco can spring an upset on one of the giants? Which young prospects from these teams are poised to break out in Russia? Can Spain or Portugal go all the way? Will Ronaldo finally put together a World Cup performance worthy of his place in the pantheon of the game’s greats? Please tell us what you think in the comments!