World Cup: Everything you need to know about Group B
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No sooner had the final ball of the draw been unscrewed and the last hopeful nation was handed its three opening fixtures than journalists, pundits and fans alike necessitated to label one group as stronger, tougher and more vigorous than the rest. C’est, “The Group of Death” they call it. Most would hand this accolade to an evenly matched Group D, a mouthwatering group which will be analysed, no doubt, superbly by Rob Pratley on Sunday. But I would disagree, instead awarding this, rather pointless, prize of, “Death Group” - to Group B. It has it all. The current European champion, a team that have won three of their last five major tournaments, a side desperate to impress in order to secure the rights to host the 2026 edition and a band of 23 men whose nation has received such negative press recently, they may threaten to go nuclear. What’s not to love?
We start with Portugal, ranked fourth in the world and - one for the geography fans - the most western based team in Group B. But, a lack of representation from the Americas should not detract from the groups claim on the title of most strenuous as, in Portugal, it holds a proven winner. Two years ago The Navigators, yes that’s the national team’s nickname, shocked the Stade De France, beating the hosts against the run of play 1-0 in the European Championships Final. On that day, their star player Cristiano Ronaldo limped off the pitch in tears after 25 minutes. But the rest of the team steadied the ship in the absence of their captain and record goal scorer, before punishing a wasteful French side through Eder’s strike deep into extra time. Portugal are often guilty of over-relying on five-time Ballon D’or winner Ronaldo yet their success two years ago proves the squad does have strength in depth with the likes of Nani, João Mário and Renato Sanches being able to win matches by themselves on their day. Could The Navigators sail beyond their previous best finish of third?
Their first match will be a local derby against neighbours Spain, which, in my view, kind of defeats the point of a World Cup. But, my unnoteworthy, utterings aside, Portugal vs Spain promises to be the fixture of the group stages, and with good reason too. Spain’s golden generation, which helped lead the nation to its first World Cup title in 2010, and the 2008 and 2012 European Championships, may be approaching it’s denouement, but an exuberance of fresh, young talent has seen it cruise for the qualifying stages. Spain won nine of their ten World Cup qualifiers only dropping points in a 1-1 draw away to Italy. Diego Costa, Alvaro Morata, Isco and David Silva all netted five times as Spain scored 36 goals and conceded only thrice. Las Rojas may have failed to progress out of the group stages in the 2014 edition of the tournament, picking up just one win against Australia after they had already been eliminated, but they would back themselves this time out to reach the round of 16. It may be a tough challenge though, what with this potentially being the Group of Death and all.
Morocco, the third country of Group B that lies on the warm mediterranean waters, are unlikely to be described in the same illustrious tones as the two nations to its north are when it comes to football. Indeed, Morocco last qualified for the competition in 1998 when their star attacker, Hakim Ziyech of Ajax, was just five-years-old. But the Africans have quietly and steadily improved and have given themselves a strong chance of equalling their best finish at a World Cup by reaching the last 16 stage. They can also rely on the services of Real Madrid full back Achraf Hakimi and Juventus central defender Medhi Benatia, as the squad remains mostly unchanged from the one that was incredibly unlucky to be knocked out in the quarter finals of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, thanks to a late goal, against an Egyptian side containing Mohamed Salah. The country is also bidding for the 2026 World Cup against a mighty thressome of The US, Canada and Mexico and will look to impress Fifa’s boardroom with a strong showing in Russia. The bid has been described as, “compact, efficient and well organised” which serves as the perfect metaphor for the national side. Don’t be surprised if both the national team and the bid cause an upset.
Iran:When I hear the words, “Iranian strikeforce,” I must admit, images of Rubin Kazan’s Sardar Azmoun and Olympiakos’ Karim Ansarifard do not spring to mind. Indeed for most foreigners just say the word Iran and they’ll immediately conjure up pictures of nuclear arsenals and dictatorships. Football and Politics should always be unrelated yet, recent US sanctions on the middle eastern country have spawned numerous difficulties for the national squad. On Friday for example, Nike announced that it would not be supplying any of its football boots to Iranian players. Rather ironically, Iran play their best football when pitted against a backdrop of diplomatic instability. The three time Asian Cup champions have qualified for five World Cups but, to date, their only victory, is a 2–1 win against the US in 1998. It was, and still is, labelled as the most politically charged football match of all time. Returning to the present, Iran are managed by former Manchester United assistant manager, Carlos Queiroz, who will hope his side can continue their excellent form from the qualifying rounds which saw them go the whole stage unbeaten, conceding just five goals and finishing above a strong South Korea. Group B looks to be heart stopping, but you wouldn’t expect anything less from the Group of Death.
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