Qualified As emphatic winners of a tough European qualifying group, and leaving in their wake arguably the biggest scalp so far in the story of World Cup 2018. Italy were rammed into second place – and consigned to the play-off the Italians then lost to Sweden – by Spain, who overwhelmed the Azzurri 3-0 in Madrid.
Manager Julen Lopetegui. The Basque, a goalkeeper in playing days at both Barcelona and Real Madrid, among other clubs, shared dressing-rooms with the likes of Pep Guardiola and Brazil’s Ronaldo, and was coached by a young Jose Mourinho and the brilliant Johan Cruyff. He also won a single cap for Spain before embarking on a management career that had been tied for a long period to Spanish age-group teams before he had success with Porto on the way to taking over the senior national side.
Player to watch Andres Iniesta. This World Cup is a farewell to Iniesta from the grand stage of elite football and there would be few who would begrudge him a glorious adios. Iniesta is the man who delivered, with his volleyed goal in the 2010 World Cup final, Spain’s first world title, and was the lubricator of the beautifully fluid midfield of an all-conquering Barcelona of that era. He is also loved for his unamplified, self-deprecating approach to his own genius. For that, millions of neutrals will hope he can bow out on a high.
In pictures: Thousands turn out as Barcelona great Andres Iniesta is unveiled at Vissel Kobe
Talking Points The rough and the smooth. Diego Costa, born in Brazil, and once a wearer of the Brazil jersey in friendly internationals, goes to his second World Cup with Spain with much to prove. He has missed half of this season due to his very public falling out with Chelsea, who he helped guide to a Premier League title before clashing with his manager, Antonio Conte.
He is clearly Spain’s most worldly centre-forward, and he’s been in form since returning in January to Atletico Madrid, but he’s still regarded as an oddball for Spain, all elbows and aggression in a team of slick, light-touch elegance. Might this be the tournament where he looks like he truly belongs?
Prediction Spain ought to do far, far better than they did in Brazil in 2014, and have the personnel to make positive amends for the quarter-final elimination they suffered two years ago when they were defending their European Championship crown. They are a team full of seasoned champions, and they will pass the ball with enviable assurance. They will not concede many goals either, with David de Gea behind that ying-and-yang duo of Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos. Spain to reach the final.
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Qualified Finished top of European qualifying Group B, and avoided what had become a habit of cutting it fine in reaching major tournaments in recent years. They still contrived to lose, to Switzerland, in their opening game, but thanks to their glut of goals – Cristiano Ronaldo contributed a stunning 15, Andre Silva nine in their 10 fixtures – headed the group on goal difference.
Manager Fernando Santos. An elder statesman in a nation with an enviable reputation for rigorous, high-quality coaches, Fernando Santos has travelled widely, smiles only occasionally and lived the greatest moment of his career two summers ago when he guided Portugal to victory in the European Championship, the country’s first major international trophy at senior level. He did so without his best player – Ronaldo – on the pitch for most of the final, and by coaxing the best out of one or two genuine journeyman. A tactician to respect.
Player to Watch Joao Mario. The creative, hard-working midfielder was a key contributor to the success at Euro 2016, but goes into his first World Cup after a topsy-turvy domestic season. He endured a tough six months at Inter Milan in Serie A, in and out of the side, and in January, mindful that he needed regular football to claim a midfield position in his national team for Russia, he accepted a loan move to West Ham United.
It was risk; he was signing up to a possible relegation dogfight, in a league he did not know intimately. Joao Mario soon showed his fine eye for a pass, and the odd goal for West Ham. He can give the Portuguese real finesse.
Talking Point Cristiano Ronaldo likes to be talked about. He likes the fact he was won almost all the major prizes available to a modern player. Except one. This one. His age, 33, suggests this may the last of his four World Cup adventures. He is of course, the first name on Fernando Santos’ teamsheet, his country’s all-time leading goalscorer and greatest player.
But his mood? He finished the club season tetchy about his status at Real Madrid, and he can be vividly intolerant – full of exasperated gestures and grumbles – about the shortcomings of his Portugal teammates when they struggle or misplace a pass.
Prediction Portugal may find the all-Iberian derby that kicks off the campaign sapping, and they can be slow starters in tournament play. If their leading light, Ronaldo, lacks freshness after a long club season, then the group phase could turn into a real grind, with Morocco and Iran set up to be hard to beat.
The European champions should be equipped to make one of the top two spots in Group B, but they may need to do more than eke out draw after draw, as they did through Euro 2016. They should make the last 16, but then face an abrupt elimination.
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How they qualified Topped Group C of the African section, above Ivory Coast - from whom Morocco took four points, including an away win - and Gabon and Mali. They were unbeaten in the group, and conceded no goals in securing their first place at a World Cup finals since 1998.
Manager Herve Renard. The Frenchman has something of a Midas touch in African football. He made history by guiding Zambia to that country’s first and only Africa Cup of Nations title in 2012 and then he took a gifted and celebrated but hugely under-performing group of Ivory Coast players, finally delivering for them a Nations Cup triumph, in 2015, after many years when they had been favourites without coming good on that status. Renard is charismatic, dapper and urbane, and, after struggling to make an impression in French club football as a manager, will want to show at his first World Cup that he can thrive outside Africa.
Player to watch Hakim Ziyech. The 25-year-old represented Netherlands, the country of his birth, at youth level, but three years ago decided, after being called up by the senior Dutch national team, to commit himself to Morocco, where his parents were born. It was Africa’s gain.
Ziyech allies fine close control to great vision. Nobody in last season’s Dutch Eredivisie provided more assists for goals than he and he has been a distinguished wearer of the fabled Ajax number 10 jersey. He is useful with a direct free-kick, too.
Talking Points There is a lively debate about the goalkeeping position, complicated by the differing club seasons the two talented glovemen in contention for a starting place have experienced. One the one hand, there is Munir Mohamedi, 29 and the proud owner of six clean sheets in the six group games of World Cup qualifying. The problem is Mohamedi has spent almost all season on the bench for Numancia, of the Spanish second division. By contrast, Yassine Bounou, 27, and second choice in World Cup qualifying, has established himself as respected No 1 at Girona, impressive newcomers to La Liga’s prestigious top tier.
Prediction It is a very big month for Moroccan football, what with a bid for hosting the 2026 World Cup to be considered by Fifa, and a return, after 20 years away, to a finals tournament. The Atlas Lions are entitled to regard themselves as their continent’s flag-bearers, with a strong defence expertly marshalled by Juventus’s Mehdi Benatia and some creative spark in midfield. But they have fallen into a very tough group, and with Spain and Portugal both crammed into it, Morocco face a tough task finishing higher than third place. Unlikely to make the knockout phase.
Qualified As top of Group A in the Asian Football Confederation final round, and in some style, undefeated through their 10 matches of the last stage, and with only two goals conceded. They finished well clear of second-placed South Korea and were the first Asian nation into Russia 2018.
Manager Carlos Queiroz. The Mozambique-born coach has quite a record in getting teams to World Cup finals, having taken Portugal, the country he grew up in, to the 2010 tournament, qualified South Africa for the 2002 event (he resigned before it started), and now having guided Iran to two on the trot. Studious in his outlook, but sometimes a little abrasive in his dealings with authorities, the former Real Madrid manager has cultivated good relationships in Iran over a long stint in charge.
Player to watch Reza Goochannejhad. The Heerenveen striker has had a less prolific club season than he enjoyed in 2016/17, when he hit 19 goals in the Eredivise campaign, but with his fine left foot, aerial ability and experience he is important to Iran, who need to make the most of their chances up front.
Born in Iran, he moved with his parents to the Netherlands at the age of four, and thrived at school, so much so he had prospects of a career as a lawyer, or even as a musician had he not shown such an appetite for scoring goals. He struck Iran’s only goal in Brazil four years ago.
Talking point Matchday 3 of Group B is shaping up as quite a charged evening for Queiroz. First, the outcome in a high-quality, and very possibly tight, group will likely carry high stakes, and there is also the meeting of Queiroz with his compatriots and some former players from his time coaching Portugal.
That stint ended with some bad-tempered goodbyes, and Portugal defender Pepe, in particular, rubbed up badly with Queiroz, who publicly described the hardman in unflattering terms. Quite a lot of baggage, then, for Iran v Portugal in Saransk on June 25.
Prediction It looks like hard luck on Iran, who have become a very competitive side not only in Asia, but in global terms in the past five years, to have been placed in a pool with the reigning European champions, Portugal, the best national team of the past 10 years, Spain, and perhaps the most solid of all the African qualifiers for Russia 2018.
Certainly, it looks very much as if three points need to be garnered from the opening fixture against Morocco for Iran to have a chance of reaching the last 16, and for that they may need to throw off the conservative mindset they sometimes adopt. On the way home after the group phase.
Group B Overview
Group B looks altogether too neighbourly for anybody’s liking, what with Portugal up against the Spain with whom they share their only land border and a Morocco which is barely 15 kilometres of Mediterranean sea away from Andalucia’s southern tip.
It is suffocatingly competitive, too, because it includes the European champions, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portuguese, the Spain that won the 2010 World Cup, and the countries that, respectively, qualified most impressively from Africa and from Asia. The likelihood is that after some tight, feisty matches, Europe will emerge ahead, in the form of last-16 places for Spain and Portugal.