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Everyone on Day 2 of the World Cup will be glued to the Iberian showdown in Sochi, pitting reigning European champion Portugal against mighty Spain for supremacy in Group B and a first step toward a possible World Cup crown.
Both sides ought to contend for honors without being favorites, but both also are capable of disappointment, and if there seems to be a large gap between these two and the group’s other entrants, think again. Morocco and Iran are strong sides capable of pulling off upsets. Both aim to reach the Round of 16, and if they’re underdogs in that pursuit, they still have a shot.
Portugal is third in FIFA’s global rankings, and in Cristiano Ronaldo possess one of the finest talents in the game’s annals, but this is a workmanlike team, far more so than the celebrated incarnations earlier this century, that still has something to prove. This might be the last major event for CR7 with A Seleção, so doing so quickly is the aim.
Fernando Santos, in charge since September 2014, utilized defensive tactics at Euro 2016, and the Portuguese were surprise champions, winning just once in 90 minutes and pulling off the upset of the tournament — in the final against host France — with the big star sidelined by injury. They breezed through qualifying, winning nine of 10 games and scoring 32 goals — 15 by Ronaldo — but the foundation is an aging defense anchored by Pepe, who at 35, has lost a step.
The attack has blossomed since the Euros as AC Milan’s Andre Silva, who netted nine qualifying goals, has taken a lead role up front and with the emergence of 23-year-old Manchester City midfielder Bernardo Silva, a left-footer with pace and guile who can play anywhere in the attacking half of the field.
What Portugal achieves, ultimately, is down to Ronaldo, now 33 and on the backside of his illustrious arc. After two straight World Cup disappointments, he sacrificed some of what he does best to bolster Portugal’s foundation two years ago. His genius might be required now.
The Spain that wrapped two European Championships around the 2010 World Cup crown isn’t quite gone, but the emergence of younger talent has reinvigorated a side that crashed out of the 2014 Cup in the group stage and finished 10th at Euro 2016. Julen Lopetegui took over from Vincent Del Bosque after the Euros, and La Furia Roja is unbeaten in 16 matches since.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Lopetegui was fired from his post one day before the start of the tournament after committing to coach Real Madrid at the end of the World Cup. No replacement has yet been announced.
They’re solid at the back with Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos — still among the world’s best defenders at 32 — and Barcelona’s Gerard Pique, at 31, anchoring the backline in front of Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea, and a potent midfield still counts heavily on Manchester City’s David Silva and Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets and especially on Barcelona’s marvelous Andres Iniesta, now 34 and looking for a last bit of international glory.
Isco, which Real Madrid’s 26-year-old midfielder Francisco Alarcon goes by, is a technical wizard who helped Spain’s Lopetegui-guided side to the 2013 European U-21 title, and he finally has found his way with the full team. Real teammate Marco Asencio could be set for a breakout performance.
There are questions up top, with Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata uncertain after missing the past three months with a back injury, but if all falls into place, the Spaniards are among the teams that realistically could win it all. If that doesn’t happen, they could head home before the knockout phase.
Many remember the wonderful Morocco side from 1986, which was the first African team to win a World Cup group (against Poland, Portugal and England) and reach the final 16 (narrowly beaten by finalist West Germany), but this is the Atlas Lions’ first World Cup finals in 20 years, and they’re not fancied to do much. Underestimating them would be a mistake.
This is a skilled side of European players — 20 of 28 on French manager Herve Renard’s most recent roster were born on the continent, mostly France and Holland — with experience in big leagues featuring veteran know-how at the back and sprightly attackers in front of them. Morocco, with Juventus’ Mehdi Benatia, 31, running things at the back and Feyenoord’s Karim El Ahmadi, 33, sitting in front of him, conceded just one goal in eight qualifying matches.
Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech, 25, has the vision and passing game to carve up foes, and Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal, 24, is a creative link. Teen left back Achraf Hakimi, from Real Madrid, is one to watch, and native Moroccans can rally behind Nabil Dirar, Benatia’s deputy.
Renard has spent more time in Africa than most of his players, with a good deal of success, guiding Zambia (in 2012) and Ivory Coast (in 2015) to African Cup of Nations titles.
If you’re looking for a first-round sleeper, try Iran, which will bring one of the stiffest defenses and the most direct attack to Russia and are guided by a man who knows Portugal and Spain intimately.
Team Melli, ranked No. 1 in Africa, romped through qualifying, going unbeaten in 18 games — with 12 of 14 shutouts coming in succession — behind Mozambique-born Portuguese manager Carlos Queiroz’s deep-lying, quick-counterattacking tactics from a 4-2-3-1 formation. This will be Iran’s fifth World Cup and the first time it’s competed in back-to-back tournaments, but there’s only been one victory, over the U.S. on July 4, 1998.
Queiroz has been in charge since April 2011, although he has resigned several times because of conflicts with administrators only to return, and he took Iran to the 2014 Cup, his third trek (after guiding South Africa in 2002 and Portugal in 2010). As a club coach, he guided Real Madrid — as well as MLS’s MetroStars for a spell in 1996 (and in 1998 he authored the “Q Report,” an assessment of American soccer at the heart of U.S. Soccer’s “Project 2010”).Captain Ashkan Dejagah is the foundation in the middle, and the attacking spark comes primarily from 22-year-old forward Sardar Azman, who has played in Russia since he was 18, complementary forward Mehdi Taremi, and creative midfielder Saman Ghoddos, who made two appearances for his native Sweden before committing last year to his ancestral home.