With World Cup 2018 about to start, Emabis takes a look through Group B where he believes the Iberian duo will both qualify.
Group B features Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Iran.
The 2010 World Cup winners, and 2008 and 2012 European champions, arrive in Russia with every intention of making amends for their unexpected group stage exit in Brazil 2014. Unbeaten in a qualifying group that included Italy, with nine wins and one draw (to Italy away), La Roja scored thirty-three goals whilst conceding only three.
Spain don’t just arrive to Russia with tradition. They arrive with a deep squad of top-tier European players and a heavy sprinkling of stars like David de Gea, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Diego Costa. But, for me, this is not the Spanish team of old. Andres Iniesta is 34 and fading. And in attack, Spain appear overly reliant on Costa and deep-lying Silva – who each scored five in qualification – as back-ups Rodrigo, Lucas Vazquez and Iago Aspas only have twenty games and six goals between them.
This is Portugal's fifth consecutive appearance at the World Cup but they only qualified from their group twice in the prior four – Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010. Despite this, they travel to Russia with high expectations. Not only are they reigning European champions, they also have one of the greatest players in the world at the helm … Cristiano Ronaldo. They also qualified top of Group B, on goal difference from Switzerland, with nine wins and one defeat.
So Portugal must be many pundit’s favourites? Actually, no, they’re not. With six draws in seven games, Portugal were fortunate to triumph in Euro 2016. And therein lies the main issue with Portugal. You expect a team featuring the quality of Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva and Andre Silva to shine but it rarely does. Instead coach Fernando Santos emphasises extreme caution in securing tight-margin results. So far, Portugal has been lucky with the tight margins falling in their favour. But their luck could finally run out in Russia.
With three wins and three draws, Morocco topped their qualification group ahead of the Ivory Coast, Gabon and Mali. Returning to the World Cup finals stage for the first time since France 1998, Morocco will be keen to replicate their Group stage qualification success in Mexico 1986. But it looks beyond them.
Defensively, led by Juventus’ Medhi Benatia, Morocco impressively qualified without conceding a single goal. But they failed to find the net in three of six qualifiers and scored nine of their eleven goals at home against Mali (six) and Gabon (three). In an effort to resolve this, Morocco will look towards little-known Ayoub El Kaab for goals. Although he has scored eleven goals in nine games, it's very doubtful El Kaab can maintain this record against two of Europe's most experienced defences.
Iran has appeared at three of the last five World Cup finals but has only won a single game – against USA in 1998. Managed by former Manchester United, Real Madrid and Portugal coach, Carlos Queiroz, Iran qualified for the tournament after a two-round qualification saw them top Group D ahead of Oman, Turkmenistan, Guam and India before then finishing top of Group A ahead of South Korea, Syria, Uzbekistan, China and Qatar.
Notably Iran only conceded five goals in their eighteen qualification games. So expect a solid defence aided by a sprinkling of attacking quality from the likes of AZ Alkmaar’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Rubin’s Sardar Azmoun.
Despite concerns about Spain converting possession into goals, they will almost certainly win this Group.
In terms of the battle for second, Portugal cannot afford to underestimate either Morocco or Iran. Both are capable of holding out the Portuguese and scoring on the counter. But if Portugal, and especially Ronaldo and Bernardo Silva play anywhere close to their potential, they should have more than enough to qualify.
Predicted Group Standings
Recommended Group Bet
Spain are 1/10 to qualify and Portugal are 1/3. Picking both Spain and Portugal to qualify is 4/11. None of those odds appeal so I'm going to take Spain to top the Group and Portugal to finish second.
Recommended Group Match Bet
Spain meet Portugal in their first game and will know a win should see them top the group to likely avoid Brazil, Germany or France until the semi-final stage.