This summer we are fortunate enough to once again have the Greatest* Soccer Tournament on the planet to keep us entertained until NFL Training Camps start. In anticipation of the 2018 World Cup kicking off in mid-June in Russia, we’ll be taking a look at all 32 teams in each of the 8 groups.
* – The 2018 World Cup comes with an asterisk on “Greatest” because 5 of the Top 25 teams in the World failed to qualify. Those 5 are some of the biggest names and biggest draws both locally (with the United States missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986) and internationally with Italy, Chile, the Netherlands, and Wales.
Yesterday, we started with the Group A Preview. Today we cover Group B which features two European powerhouses in Portugal and Spain along with up-and-coming young squads from Morocco and Iran.
Portugal is making their 5th straight World Cup appearance. They have made it out of the group stage twice in that time, including a 4th place finish in 2006. Their best all-time result is a 3rd place finish back in 1966. Portugal has been one of the top international squads of late, winning Euro 2016 and finishing third at the 2017 Confederations Cup.
Portugal qualified for the World Cup by winning their qualifying group on a Goal Differential tiebreaker with Switzerland. Both Portugal and Switzerland cruised past the other 4 teams in the group and split their head-to-head meetings. The Selecao have only dropped 3 games in the last 2 calendar years and are primed to make a deep run in this tournament. On the whole, this is an experienced Portugal squad with 4 players over 90 caps. In addition to the legendary Christiano Ronaldo, midfielder Joao Moutinho (109 caps) and defenders Bruno Alves (95 caps) and Pepe (94 caps) will anchor the squad.
Players to Watch
Christiano Ronaldo is arguably the best player in the world right now. He has won the FIFA Ballon d’Or as the best club player in 3 of the last 4 years. He carried Real Madrid to their 3rd straight Champions League title and scored 44 goals across 44 total matches. For the national team, Ronaldo has scored 26 goals in his last 26 games dating back to 2016.
Spain won the 2010 World Cup with their brand of “Tiki-Taka” soccer which features a ball-control game of numerous passes before setting up a shot. Tiki Taka died a brutal and terrible death at the 2014 World Cup when Spain got shelled by the Netherlands and Chile in the group stage. This is Spain’s 11th consecutive World Cup appearance and 15th all-time. After winning two straight European Championships, Spain went out in the Round of 16 in 2016.
Spain edged Italy to top their qualifying group and earn a bid to the World Cup. Spain has returned to form and is playing some of their best soccer in recent memory. They have not lost a game since falling to Italy in the knockout stage of Euro 2016. La Roja has posted a 13-6-0 record over that span.
Players to Watch
Spain is bringing an experienced roster to the World Cup with 5 players over 100 caps. In the middle La Roja features David Silva (who just helped Manchester City to the Premier League title) and a pair of players from Barcelona in Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. Defender Sergio Ramos was the anchor for UEFA Champions League winers Real Madrid and goalkeeper David de Gea posted the most clean sheets in the EPL this year with Manchester United.
Between 1970 and 1998, Morocco qualified for 4 World Cups and even reached the knockout stage in 1986. They reached the Quarterfinals of the Africa Cup of Nations last year, the first time they made it out of the group stage since 2004.
Morocco did not lose a game during the final stage of CAF Qualifying, posting 3 wins and 3 draws to win their group over Ivory Coast. Morocco has not lost a game in over a year, posting a 7-2-0 record in that span. Their friendly wins include victories over fellow World Cup qualifiers Serbia and South Korea.
Players to Watch
Morocco is burgeoning with young talent in the midfieldled by Hakim Ziyech of the Dutch club Ajax. Keep an eye out for youngster Ayoub El Kaabi who burst onto the scene at the Africa Nations Championship, scoring 9 goals to lead the Atlas Lions to the title.
This is Iran’s second straight World Cup appearance and third in the last four cycles. All-time, Iran has appeared in 4 World Cups but has never advanced past the first round. Their only World Cup win came over the United States in 1998. Iran has gone out in the quarterfinals of the last 3 Asian Cups
Iran did not lose a game during World Cup qualification this cycle, going 6-2-0 in the 2nd round then 6-4-0 in the final round of AFC Qualifiers. Iran is a relatively boring team that is limited offensively and scored just 10 goals in 10 games in the final qualification round.
Players to Watch
Iran tends to sit back defensively, but when they do attack watch out for 23-year old Sadar Azmoun who has played for Rubin Kazan and Rostov in the Russian Premier League. For Iran, he has scored 23 goals in 32 international appearances.
Here are the predictions of the SCB crew (including a special guest appearance by soccer expert SteelSon) on which teams from Group B will advance to the Knockout Stage.