Iberian cousins Spain and Portugal look set to battle for top spot in Group B at the 2018 World Cup.
With Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo leading from the front, European champions Portugal will be aiming to upset the odds again and back-up their Euro 2016 triumph. But they face a Spain side featuring wily veterans like Sergio Ramos and Andrés Iniesta who will want their last World Cup to count.
Morocco qualified without conceding a goal and have one or two players with enough flair to cause opponents problems at the other end of the pitch. Iran coach Carlos Queiroz knows all about Portugal – he coached them at the 2010 tournament – but his first priority will be making his current team hard to beat.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER?
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal): €106.8m ($127.5m)
*According to CIES Football Observatory
ONE TO WATCH?
Hakim Ziyech (Morocco)
Born in the Netherlands, the attacking midfielder was previously called up to their national squad but has since pledged his future to The Atlas Lions. The 25-year-old, who plays for Ajax, has just finished with the most assists in the Dutch Eredivisie for the second consecutive season. With an eye for goal and cultured left foot, Ziyech will put his hand up for any free-kicks in range of the goal. His teammates should listen.
COACH TO KEEP AN EYE ON?
Julen Lopetegui (Spain)
The former Basque goalkeeper, part of Spain’s 1994 World Cup squad, made his name as a coach with Spain’s youth teams, winning European Championships at Under-19 and Under-21 level. A spell at Porto did not go to plan but since taking charge of La Roja nearly two years ago, Lopetegui has comfortably steered Spain through qualifying and recently oversaw a 6-1 friendly thumping of Argentina (albeit minus Messi). Lopetegui’s tournament experience could be vital if, as expected, his side progress to the knockout stage. An honorable mention for Hervé Renard, the wwell-traveled French coach of Morocco who has come a long way since being sacked in 2004 by Cambridge United, then in England’s fourth tier.
Morocco’s clash with Iran will come after the nations cut diplomatic ties earlier this month (May) over Tehran’s alleged support for a pro-independence group in the Western Sahara. Though it’s unlikely to rival the politically-charged 1998 World Cup encounter when Iran played – and beat – the United States. Things occasionally still flare up between Morocco and Spain – usually over disputed territories – but Spain and Portugal are fairly friendly these days. The pair even made an unsuccessful joint bid to host this World Cup.
Spain’s offering – a modern take on their 1994 World Cup strip from Adidas – may divide opinion but is worth a look.
MATCH ADVERTISERS WILL BE SCRAMBLING FOR?
Opening match of the group with everything to play for? Neighbor vs. neighbor? Cristiano Ronaldo, probably the best striker in the world, against club teammate Sergio Ramos, probably the best defender? It has to be Portugal vs. Spain on June 15.
WORLD CUP NERDS ARE LOOKING FORWARD TO…
Portugal’s attempt to become only the fourth team to win the European Championship and World Cup consecutively.
An exclusive club featuring: West Germany (Euros 1972, World Cup 1974), France (World Cup 1998, Euros 2000) and Spain (Euros 2008, World Cup 2010, Euros 2012).
DO EXPECT …
Morocco fans to make some noise. This is the first qualification since 1998 for the soccer-mad country and their supporters will do everything to be the team’s 12th man.
DON’T EXPECT …
To see Renato Sanches. The Portugal all-action midfielder was named Euro 2016’s Young Player of the Tournament but was left out of his country’s squad after a nightmare season. Sanches, 20, spent the season on loan at Swansea City from Bayern Munich but did little to help his temporary team as they were relegated from the Premier League.
WILL ANY OF THEM WIN IT?
Cristiano Ronaldo will be dreaming of the perfect international swansong but it would take an effort even mightier than the 2016 Euros for Portugal to go all the way. Even relying on some of their old guard – Piqué, Ramos, Busquets, Iniesta – Spain look a better bet. How far they go in the knockout stage could come down to how well their somewhat underwhelming forward options can fire.