Group B Round-Up: World Cup 2018
Group B is clearly split into two sections, with a pair of overwhelming favourites in Portugal (2.45) and Spain (1.54) pitted against clear underdogs Iran (51.00) and Morocco (34.00). The World Cup has featured more than its fair share of shocks throughout the tournament’s illustrious history, though, so nothing should be taken for granted here.
Spain’s off-field antics concerning their manager only adds to the woes of recent tournaments, crashing out of the 2014 edition of the competition in dramatic fashion, losing 5-1 to the Netherlands and 2-0 to Chile to exit Brazil before any other side. There were signs of rehabilitation in the group stage of Euro 2016 when La Roja performed brilliantly in victories over the Czech Republic and Turkey, but Vicente del Bosque’s charges were then comprehensively out-thought in defeat by Italy in the round of 16.
The 2010 champions looked to be back to their best in World Cup qualification, though, with Julen Lopetegui reinvigorating a team which had previously gone stale. Long-serving stalwarts Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and David Silva remain, but fresh blood is provided by the likes of Isco, Marco Asensio and Saul Niguez. It’s just a shame Lopetegui won’t be there to enjoy the fruits of his labours. Up-step Fernando Hierro!
Diego Costa will lead the line for Spain following Alvaro Morata’s omission from the 23-man squad. It’s safe to say no matter who they went with, they’d have fancied their chances of finishing first in Group B regardless.
Spain and Portugal to fight it out for the top spot
Even with Portugal in Group B, I don’t see how Spain will fail to win the group. And I will be extremely surprised of Morocco finish anywhere but dead last.
Portugal should not be written off, however, and the game between the two sides on 15 June will be key to determining which of the pair takes top spot. Fernando Santos’ side upset the odds to win the European Championship in 2016, and many of the young players who triumphed in France have progressed with another two years’ experience under their belts.
Cristiano Ronaldo is deadly inside the penalty area and will rack up the goals in Group B, while it is worth remembering the Selecao only conceded once in the knockout stage of Euro 2016. Goal difference could be all that separates Portugal and Spain after three games.
Morocco are Africa’s representatives in Group B after an impressive qualifying campaign saw them pip Ivory Coast, Mali and Gabon to a spot in Russia. Herve Renard is an excellent international manager and his team played some of the most progressive, coherent football at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. Hakim Ziyech’s invention will be crucial, but the Atlas Lions could be edged out by Iran in what will almost certainly be the battle for third place.
Iran’s place at the World Cup never really looked in doubt throughout qualification, when Carlos Queiroz’s men amassed 22 points from a possible 30 and, even more impressively, kept nine clean sheets in their 10 encounters.
A return of 10 goals in those 10 games suggests they are not the most prolific, though, and that will surely be a problem against both Spain and Portugal. Sardar Azmoun has the potential to be one of the breakout stars of the group stage, but a lack of firepower will probably prove Iran’s undoing.
By Greg Lea
After many years of sports writing with emphasis on football, including a stint at Sky Sports, Greg is here to help you with betting tips. Follow him on Twitter @greglea to get the latest updates before placing your bets.