2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group B
Portugal and Spain will likely be in a two-horse race for first place in the group, and will also likely be the two teams to advance to the knockout phase. However, Portugal does not have the same well-balanced roster than their neighbors Spain have, and Spain suffered a humiliating collapse in the 2014 tournament after their golden-age players captured the title in 2010.
Let’s take a look at the for each team in Group B, and review their chances of advancing from the group stage and what they can do in the knockout phase.
Iran will be in their second consecutive World Cup after going through a period of missing the tournament and qualifying for it in the previous four World Cups. Iran has only lost two matches since June 4, 2018, but will have difficulty facing Spain in the second match of the group phase. Sardar Azmoun will be the player to focus on for Iran. Although only 23, he has established himself as a capable scorer for the national team; he has netted 23 times in 32 appearances for Iran. Iran will likely need a tie against Portugal along with a win against Morocco to advance to the knockout phase.
Morocco will be playing in their fifth World Cup ever, and they are captained by Juventus defender Medhi Benatia. Like Iran, Morocco has a key player who will be a cornerstone for the national team’s future, Real Madrid defender Achraf Hakimi. Expectations for the national team will be to advance to the knockout phase, but they will have to face off against Iran in their opener. Lose against Iran and their possibilities of advancing likely reach zero, but win big against Iran, and you give yourself a chance against the two heavy favorites to advance.
The 2016 European Champions will look to win their first ever World Cup as this is likely the last chance we will see Cristiano at the peak of his powers in the tournament. The spotlight will be on Ronaldo, as it should, he is Portugal’s most capped player, their leading goal scorer, was the captain of the championship squad of the 2016 Euro, and has won four of the last five UEFA Champions League with Real Madrid, just to list a few of his accomplishments.
The roster is missing several key players from the 2-16 Euro Final, including Nani, Renato Sanches, and Eder. This Portugal squad will be reliant on several young players who are proving themselves for their respective clubs, including Andre Silva and Bernardo Silva (no relation). For this team to challenge Spain and finish top of the group, the attacking players will have to find a way to take advantage of the increased attention Ronaldo will draw, and the defense led by Pepe will have to hold similar to the Euro 2016 only conceded one goal in the knockout phase and held France scoreless in the final.
The Spain national team has the third best odds to win the tournament, according to Bovada. The squad maintains several players from their golden-age generation, including captain Sergio Ramos, his centre-back partner and club rival Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, and 2010 World Cup legend, Andres Iniesta. Manchester City midfielder, David Silva, was also an important part of the roster, but was not as integral as the other four in 2010.
When comparing Spain to several teams in the tournament, you can argue it has an embarrassment of riches. Spain left out Cesc Fabregas, Marc Bartra, Pedro, and Alvaro Morata from the 2018 World Cup roster, players who would be perhaps captains of several teams in the tournament. However, La Roja has been underwhelming in its last two major tournaments, the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the Euro 2016. Since the the Euro 2016, Spain has not suffered defeat, and is also coming off a massive 6-1 victory over Argentina, albeit without Messi.
The starting defense for Spain is almost set, but Carvajal’s hamstring injury will be something to monitor considering they face Portugal in their first match. Marco Asensio and Thiago Alcantara will likely both feature in the tournament as substitutes for an aging Iniesta and other midfielders in the starting eleven. The squad will be favored to finish atop the group, but should learn from its previous mistakes and be prepared for the challenges the other teams offer.