Spain's defence is arguably the best in the competition. Even if Dani Carvajal isn’t fit, Cesar Azpilicueta is a fine replacement, with left-back Jordi Alba crucial for offering thrust and speed from the left. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique aren’t friends off the pitch, but remain reliable as a defensive partnership, and David De Gea is surely the best goalkeeper at the tournament.
There’s a slight question over Sergio Busquets, who is more isolated in this system and is increasingly lacking mobility. Nevertheless, Spain are rightly strong favourites for this group and probably overpriced to win the World Cup overall.
Their opening game, against Portugal, is clearly the toughest on paper – although Spain might actually enjoy playing against a side with some level of ambition, rather than playing against a parked bus. That’s not to say that Fernando Santos’ side won’t play on the counter-attack, but there will be periods when they will dominate possession and allow Spain to attack quickly.
Portugal are no longer dark horses, having won the European Championships two years ago, but in truth that victory owed much to good fortune – they were probably a better side ten years beforehand. Since that victory in France, various players have endured a difficult time at club level, and Portugal are an ageing side, particularly in the centre of defence.
Tactically, Santos is again likely to deploy a narrow 4-4-2, almost a diamond midfield with Ronaldo playing upfront alongside Andre Silva. However, for the crucial opener against Spain, Ronaldo might be fielded as a lone striker, with Santos further beefing up the centre of midfield to compete with their rivals’ tiki-taka. In truth, Santos would be delighted with a 0-0.
Portugal are unashamedly reliant upon Ronaldo, and with 15 goals in qualification he continues to shine. Providing him with service in the right areas might be difficult, though. Whereas Portugal once produced countless wingers, they now depend upon the full-backs for width – Raphael Guerreiro is a fine crosser – but they can’t scamper forward too much for fear of exposing the increasingly immobile centre-backs.
Portgual are one of the most unpredictable sides in the competition. Few would be surprised if Ronaldo’s goals covered up their weaknesses and fired them to the semi-finals – but if he’s below-par, this is an average side that could be eliminated before the knockout stages.
If Portugal do slip up, it would open the door for Morocco. They might be the most underrated side coming into this competition: they boast a fantastic coach in Herve Renard, who has won the Africa Cup of Nations twice, plus a solid defensive record and a wealth of exciting attacking midfielders.
The problem, of course, is the group – which explains why Morocco’s odds are quite so long. But they’re probably also being underestimated because of the lack of outstanding star attackers. Nevertheless, Younes Belhanda can dominate matches and is afforded the platform to do so, ahead of two solid holding midfielders, while Nordin Amrabat offers trickery out wide. Hakim Ziyech should start on the left and has occasionally been sublime for Ajax.
Yes, there’s a lack of a reliable goalscorer, but that’s less relevant considering Morocco’s outstanding defensive record – six from six in the final round of African qualifiers, against decent opposition. Mehdi Benatia is one of the best centre-backs in the tournament, and right-back Nabil Dirar a fine overlapper. If Morocco can keep at least two clean sheets in the group stage, they’ll probably end up pinching enough goals at the other end to progress. $4* to progress from this group looks generous.
That leaves Iran, who are a perfectly well-organised side, but have suffered from a lack of matches against decent opposition in recent months, and therefore will go into this tournament somewhat underprepared.
Iran, much like Morocco, boast a fine defensive record – keeping 12 straight clean sheets midway through their qualification campaign. Coach Carlos Queiroz remains one of the best defensive organisers around, and will concentrate on assembling a deep, compact block to frustrate superior opponents, probably in a 4-5-1 shape. There is a problem, though, with a lack of attacking talent. Sardar Azmoun has a decent international goalscoring record, but the greatest threat is probably winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh, because Iran will need some counter-attacking spark if they’re to trouble the superior sides in this strong group.
Those who remember Iran’s commendable effort against Argentina four years ago will know what to expect, although the situation is complicated by the fact their opening game, against Morocco, represents their best chance of a win. Nevertheless, don’t expect Queiroz to open up too much. Iran will struggle to record a victory, but they’re unlikely to be thrashed.
See all of Michael's other group previews here:
Group A - Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay
Group C - Australia, Denmark, France, Peru
Group D - Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria
Group E - Brazil, Costa Rica, Serbia, Switzerland
Group F - Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Sweden
Group G - Belgium, England, Panama, Tunisia
Group H - Colombia, Japan, Poland, Senegal