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Portugal

Where to now for Portugal? One of world football’s great underachievers finally cracked an elusive win by taking out the European Championships in 2016. Can they repeat the feat in Russia?

In truth, a nation as small as Portugal can hardly expect to dominate world football. It’s all the more remarkable then that they go into the 2018 World Cup as the reigning European champions - and they won Euro 2016 despite talisman Cristiano Ronaldo limping off early in the final in Paris. 

Ronaldo will be looking to make up for lost time in Russia, in what is likely to be the 33-year-old’s final World Cup. He is by far and away his nation’s record cap winner and goal scorer, and he rattled home a seriously impressive 15 goals in European qualifying – a record only bettered by Poland’s prolific striker Robert Lewandowski. Indeed, Ronaldo has the rare knack of seemingly being able to score more goals the older he gets, and much of Portugal’s attacking impetus will predictably revolve around the Real Madrid star.

But that’s not to suggest Ronaldo doesn’t receive plenty of help from those around him. Milan striker André Silva enjoyed an outstanding qualification campaign as Portugal went neck and neck with Switzerland – ultimately securing qualification with a decisive win over the Swiss in the final round, while the likes of Raphaël Guerreiro, Bernando Silva and João Mário are some of the most highly rated youngsters in the world.

Whether coach Fernando Santos can inspire his side to even greater heights is the question that remains. The Portuguese will have no problem firing up for the clash with Iberian neighbours Spain, but they’ve tended to blow hot and cold in tournament football in the past. Much will rely, not surprisingly, on Ronaldo. If the wantaway Real Madrid can find his top form in Russia, then the team that stunned Euro 2016 may just have a few more surprises up their sleeves.

Coach: Fernando Santos

Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo

One to watch: André Silva (pictured)     

Spain

Has the world moved on from tiki-taka football? Maybe not, if Spain’s qualification campaign is anything to go by.

The Spaniards romped through European qualifying, drawing once – with Italy – and recording eight straight wins thereafter. They shared the goals around too, with Diego Costa, Isco, Álvaro Morata and Davild Silva all netting five times throughout the campaign. And Spain’s squad is so strong that Morata wasn’t even called up to the final squad.

Instead the goal scoring will largely be left to combative Brazilian-born striker Diego Costa. And coach Julen Lopetegui – who took over after Vicente del Bosque’s retirement – will hope Costa brings his goal scoring boots, given that understudies Rodrigo Moreno, Iago Aspas and Lucas Vázquez boast just six international goals between them – several of which came in a recent 6-1 friendly mauling of Argentina.

Yet Spain have rarely relied on an out-and-out striker over the past decade, with the likes of Andrés Iniesta, Isco and David Silva all proving adept at chiming in with crucial goals. And they’ll rely heavily on a familiar spine of Iniesta, Silva, Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets – who all boast over a hundred caps to their name – once again in Russia.

But as the 2014 World Cup amply demonstrated, favouritism counts for nothing at a World Cup. The Spaniards went into that tournament having won two European Championships and a World Cup in quick succession, only to be crushed 5-1 by the Netherlands in their opening group stage game. And a subsequent 2-0 defeat to Chile prompted a swift exit for the defending champions – although Lopetegui will no doubt be quick to point out that neither the Netherlands, nor Chile managed to even qualify for Russia.

Tournament favourites? Perhaps not. But Spanish fans won’t mind their team flying under the radar if it means another tilt at a world title.

Coach: Julen Lopetegui

Key player: Andrés Iniesta

One to watch: Marco Asensio (pictured)

Morocco

The Atlas Lions are back in the big time after a 20-year absence, and Morocco look like they mean business.

A dominant 2-1 win over Slovakia in a pre-tournament friendly will have done nothing to dampen expectations around Hervé Renard’s side, despite the fact the North African giants didn’t exactly blow away their opponents in qualifying. A surprisingly fraught 2-1 aggregate win over minnows Equitorial Guinea in the Second Round was followed by a more comfortable passage through the Third Round of African qualifying, where a 2-0 win over the Côte d'Ivoire on the final day sealed Morocco’s passage to Russia at the expense of the Ivorians.

Renard famously won the 2015 African Cup of Nations at the helm of Côte d'Ivoire, but the magnetic Frenchman is now firmly entrenched as Morocco coach – and he’ll be eager to make his mark at his first World Cup finals. Morocco’s defence looks likely to be their strong point – they recorded three scoreless draws in qualifying – however goal scoring could be a different story. Ayoub El Kaabi made an explosive start to life in a Morocco jersey when he nabbed nine goals in the African Nations Championship in January, and crucially for Renard, he’s carried his form into Morocco’s pre-World Cup friendlies – scoring the winner against Uzbekistan and another against Slovakia. Skipper Medhi Benatia is by far Morocco’s biggest name, but a mixture of seasoned professionals and some up-and-coming talents suggest the Moroccans could prove tough to beat.

Players like Ajax star Hakim Ziyech, Feyenoord veteran Karim El Ahmadi and Galatasaray playmaker Younès Belhanda will be eager to showcase their talents on the biggest stage of all, but if there are question marks around Morocco, it’s surely focussed on their lack of major tournament experience. Morocco reached the quarter-finals of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, but before that the Atlas Lions were plunged into controversy when they supposedly ‘withdrew’ from hosting the 2015 edition – a charge Morocco vehemently denied – and they failed to emerge from the group stage in the two previous continental championships.

That won’t unduly bother Renard though, who has grown accustomed to performing minor miracles on the international stage. In 2012 he lad Zambia to the most improbable of African titles. It will be a similarly heroic feat if he can steer the Atlas Lions beyond the group stage in Russia.

Coach: Hervé Renard

Key player: Medhi Benatia

One to watch: Hakim Ziyech (pictured)

Iran

Is there a more enigmatic team in Asian football than Iran? Equal parts ridiculous and sublime, Team Melli were hugely disappointing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

But after romping through Asian qualifying – Iran went unbeaten through the entire campaign – there are fresh hopes Carlos Queiroz’s side can finally do something they’ve never done before and get out their group at the fifth time of asking. They were desperately disappointing in Brazil – drawing their opening game 0-0 with Nigeria, before losing 1-0 to Argentina and 3-1 to Bosnia and Herzegovina, however their dominant qualification campaign suggests Queiroz’s side may be made of sterner stuff.

Yet the same could have been said of Iran four years ago. Having been in charge since 2011 – and largely overcome the myriad political intrigues that are part and parcel of Iranian football – Queiroz might rightly be expected to conjure a much-improved showing in Russia. And he’ll no doubt hope an outstanding qualification campaign won’t have borne a sense of complacency within his squad. Among the list of Iran’s wins in qualifying was a 1-0 win over group rivals South Korea in Tehran and an equally impressive 1-0 win over Uzbekistan in Tashkent. And in Sardar Azmoun, they’ve unveiled a young talent who clearly belongs at this level.

The 23-year-old striker rattled home no less than 11 goals in qualifying, and the Rubin Kazan-based talent enjoys intimate knowledge of the Russian venues as well. The likes of skipper Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi boast a wealth of international experience, while the mercurial Ashkan Dejagah continues to show flashes of the talent which at one stage earmarked him as one of the most exciting players in world football.

Translating that talent into tangible results has long been a problem for Iran at international level. Queiroz may have steadied an often volatile ship, but there’s a sense that the clock is ticking for the one-time Real Madrid coach to turn undoubted promise into decent performances when it really counts.

Coach: Carlos Queiroz

Key player: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (pictured)

One to watch: Sardar Azmoun             


Categories: Analysis | World Cup

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