Group B contains current European champions Portugal and former World and European champions Spain along with Iran and Morocco. Portugal and Spain, currently ranked 4 and 10 respectively by FIFA, are the favourites to qualify from this group, though Iran and Morocco, ranked 37 and 41 respectively, would have other ideas.
The French coach of Morocco, Herve Renard, has gradually put together a squad that contains only 6 players actually born in the country. The other 17 squad members are all born abroad, albeit of Moroccan descent. The two main goalkeepers in the squad are two such “foreigners”, with Canada born Yassine Bounou vying for a place in the starting line-up with Spain born Munir Mohamedi. The central defence comprises of three France born players – squad captain Mehdi Benatia of Juventus, Manuel da Costa and Romain Saiss. Nabil Dirar and Hamza Mendyl, both home born, are the usual full-backs.
The midfield is where Morocco’s main strength lies. Veteran Mbark Boussoufa, Younes Belhanda and Hakim Ziyech provide the attacking flair backed by the more defensive minded Karim El Ahmadi. The highly talented Amine Harit is a recent addition to the squad and may surprise the world if given an opportunity. Nordin Amrabat is a skilful winger to provide crosses for the strikers, of whom Ayoub El Kaabi has recently emerged as the frontliner. Khalid Boutalib, too, can be the typical spearhead.
The Iranians have the same coach, Portuguese Carlos Queiroz, since 2011, and this has given the squad a sense of continuity and solidity. This will be Queiroz’s third world cup as a coach, after 2010 (with Portugal) and 2014 (with Iran). There are 7 players in the squad who also appeared in 2014, including the captain Masoud Shojaei, who also played in the 2006 edition. Under Queiroz, Iran became the third team to qualify for the 2018 cup (after hosts Russia and Brazil), which has given them a fairly long time to prepare.
Iran have a strong and well organised defence in front of a fine goalkeeper – Alireza Beiranvand. The defence is led by the experienced duo of Pejman Montazeri and left back Ehsan Hajsafi. Centre back Morteza Pouraliganji is a solid young defender, as is Milad Mohammadi at right back. The midfield is led by captain Shojaei, along with the experienced Ashkan Dejagah. Alireza Jahanbakhsh provides width from the wings. The solidity is provided by Omid Ebrahimi and Saeed Ezatolahi. The attack has several options, the main two being Reza Ghoochannejhad and Karim Ansarifard, who has often been compared to his mentor – the legendary Ali Daei. But the real man to watch up front might well be the Russia based Sardar Azmoun, a supreme talent according to those who have watched him. All in all, Iran seem ready to cause headaches to all opponents.
Spain may be ranked 10 at the moment, but they are always one of the main contenders, as in the recent past. This time, too, they would like to challenge for the title, but they have to qualify from the group first, unlike 2010. Under former national and 1994 world cup goalkeeper Julen Lopetegui, they have a squad capable of erasing the bitter disappointment of four years ago and make a mark.
In David de Gea, they have one of the finest goalkeepers in the world today. In front of him is a solid, experienced if slightly ageing defence, with the likes of captain Sergio Ramos (who will be playing in his 4th cup), Gerard Pique (3rd cup), Jordi Alba and Cesar Azpiliqueta (2nd cup for both) and the younger Dani Carvajal. Nacho Monreal of Arsenal can add extra steel to the defence, if required. The midfield revolves around the brilliant Andres Iniesta (4th cup) and the industrious Sergi Busquets (3rd cup). They are well complemented by the talented trio of Koke, Isco and Thiago Alcantara (whose father Mazinho won the 1994 world cup with Brazil). Another creative and experienced attacking midfielder is David Silva (3rd cup). The attack has the Brazil born Diego Costa, now back in good form with Atletico. It remains to be seen how the veterans gel with the newcomers in this edition of the world cup.
Portugal played solid football two yereas ago to win Euro 16, and fans will hope that the team will repeat the feat at the world cup, too. Under Fernando Santos (who coached Greece in the last world cup) they have a fine team, with experience balanced by youth. Rui Patricio is a steady and safe goalkeeper, in front of a defence which has the veterans Pepe and Bruno Alves (3rd cup for both) and Jose Fonte, who came into the national side rather late in his career. The young brigade is represented by the talented Cedric Soares and Raphael Guerrero.
Joao Moutinho provides the experience and solidity in midfield, amongst a group of really talented players like William Carvalho, Bernardo Silva, Joao Mario and Manuel Fernandes. But it is their main forward and captain, Cristiano Ronaldo, that they will look at – to provide the inspiration of another great title run. Ronaldo will be appearing in his 4th cup and would surely like to make a mark. Andre Silva will probably support him up front. The veteran Ricardo Quaresma finally gets an opportunity to represent his country at a world cup at the age of 34, and he, too, shall have a point or two to prove.
All in all, Portugal and Spain should qualify from this group, with the only seeming contest is for 1st place in the group. But then again, this is football, and strange things do tend to happen from time to time. Both Iran and Morocco would love to provide that x-factor this time.
(From the desk of Rajat Subhra Banerjee)