Iran 750/1 – SkyBet
Captain: Ashkan Dejagah
Manager: Carlos Queiroz
Nickname: Team Melli
FIFA rank: 36
Carlos Queiroz, remember him? He was once Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at Manchester United. Now the man born in Portugal has the seemingly impossible job of steering Iran to the Round-of-16. Iran picked up a point against Nigeria in 2014 and had it not been for a Lionel Messi penalty in injury time, they would have picked up another point and a clean sheet in Group F. The Iranians have made incremental improvements and are ranked by FIFA at a lofty 36th.
Although the Iranian team qualified for the World Cup without difficulty, they’re unlikely to finish above Morocco or their other Group B opponents in Spain and Portugal. Queiroz will need to get the best of of Olympiacos forward Karim Ansarifard, he scored 17 goals in the Greek Superleague. 25-year-old Mehdi Taremi has scored 10 goals in 23 games for Team Melli.
Iran’s star player is Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who plays on the wing for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar. The 24-year-old is valued at around €8m and he’ll be hoping to catch the eye of one or two scouts at this Summer’s tournament. If you’re feeling brave you might be tempted at odds of 20/1 or 19/2 (various bookies) for Iran to beat Spain and Portugal respectively. Cameroon beat World Champions Argentina at Italia 90, who knows what can happen in Russia.
Morocco 500/1 – Various bookies
Captain: Medhi Benatia
Manager: Herve Renard
Nickname: The Atlas Lions
FIFA rank: 42
Morocco kept six clean sheets and remained unbeaten during their World Cup campaign. Head Coach Herve Renard is a bit of a journeyman. The Frenchman had a brief spell as manager of Cambridge United before moving on to manage in Vietnam. The former Ivory Coast manager will rely on Morocco’s defensive abilities which of course will be tested by the movement of Spanish and Portuguese forwards.
Hakim Ziyech is Morocco’s stand out player. The 24-year-old plays in the Dutch Eredivisie for Ajax and a return of nine goals and 17 assists has attracted attention from Premier League clubs. 31-year-old forward Khalid Boutaib is likely to lead the line in Morocco’s opening game. Boutaib spent much of his playing career in France, during this season he bagged 12 goals for Turkish outfit Yeni Malatyaspor. The Atlas Lions caused a bit of an upset in Mexico 86 when they held Bobby Robson’s England to a 0-0 draw, can they upset the balance in Group B this time around? Morocco are 5/4 favourites with several bookies to beat Iran in their opening game.
Portugal 25/1 – Various bookies
Captain: Cristiano Ronaldo
Manager: Fernando Santos
FIFA rank: 4
The current European Champions would love to emulate their Spanish neighbours and win back-to-back international tournaments. It must be a great feeling when you’ve got one the best players in world football on your side, the question is whether or not Cristiano Ronaldo can deliver once again.
Portugal had a narrow 2-1 victory against Egypt, that was followed by a 3-0 crushing defeat at the hands of Holland in March. Santos won’t be too worried about those friendly results but he will be more concerned about the fitness of his star player. Ronaldo’s World Cup focus will be delayed, a Champions League final stands between now and Portugal’s opening fixture on 15 June against Spain, arguably the game of the opening round.
If selected, questions will be asked of Portugal’s veteran players, Pepe, Bruno Alves and Joao Moutinho. Will they have the stamina to maintain a sustainable challenge on the World Cup? Much is expected of AC Milan’s Andre Silva. The 22-year-old forward has made an impressive start to his professional career.
Portugal have a richly talented pool of players to choose from. The domestic season takes its toll on players and there aren’t many sides that will fancy marking Ronaldo and company for 90 minutes. Don’t be surprised to see Portugal reaching the last eight.
Spain 13/1 – Various bookies
Captain: Sergio Ramos
Manager: Julen Lopetegui
Nickname: La Roja
FIFA Rank: 8
Spain qualified for Russia 2018 with ease but La Roja had a forgettable 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where the World Champions were humiliated 5-1 by Holland. Julen Lopetegui’s biggest headache as the head coach will be to select his best XI from a rich pool of talent. Try filtering out the midfield talent of Sergio Busquets, Thiago Alcantara, Koke, Saul Niguez, Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Isco, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez, it’s not an easy task.
Whatever side is selected by Lopetegui, expect Spain to play their trademark game of keeping the ball and wearing down the opposition. Diego Costa has regained his form since arriving back at Atletico Madrid. Fresh from Europa League success, the former Chelsea striker will be chomping at the bit to lead the Spanish line. Valencia forward Rodrigo had a decent return of 16 goals in La Liga.
Spain have a number of experienced quality defenders in Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Ramos. Spain’s problems might not necessarily be keeping the ball out of the net but more about converting their dominant possession into goals. Spain have the talent to make it to the final, it boils down to whether or not they can get the right balance on the pitch. Beating Portugal in their opening fixture will give their players a huge confidence boost.
*Written on May 17th by John Wozniak **Odds correct at the time of writing
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