Spain are among the favourites to win the 2018 football World Cup in Russia. But they will first need to conquer an exciting Group B, which also comprises Portugal, Morocco and Iran.The group is teeming with attacking players and prospects of interesting matches.

The 2010 World Cup winners will start their campaign against reigning European champions Portugal eager to exorcise the ghosts of the opening game at the last World Cup, when they were defeated by the Netherlands 1-5. The squad has changed considerably since, but La Furia Roja’s riches of talent have barely suffered.

The talent available to manager Julen Lopetegui is best summed up by the uncertain fate of Iago Aspas. The Celta Vigo winger, who has scored 20 league goals this season, was on the scoresheet once and assisted three in a second-half cameo against Argentina in Spain’s last friendly, but is still not sure of making the squad for Russia.

Spain’s success over the last decade has been built upon an accomplished midfield, and it remains their biggest strength. Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Isco, Koke, Thiago Alcântara, Javi Martínez, Saúl Ñíguez, David Silva and Marco Asensio are sufficient to form two world-class midfields. And Lopetegui is doing his best to accommodate as many of them as possible by deploying some of them on the wings.

Álvaro Morata’s struggles at Chelsea mean Diego Costa is likely to be the preferred striker in Russia, with Rodrigo as his understudy. The defence has Dani Carvajal, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos and Jordi Alba comprising the back four and David de Gea in goal.

Iberian rivals Portugal, in theory, will be their toughest group opponents, but Morocco and Iran will also be tricky rivals to navigate. Morocco have a plethora of exciting players, and the territorial disputes between the Mediterranean rivals will add an edge to their encounter.

Morocco have a number of exciting players in their ranks, including the Schalke midfielder Amine Harit (No. 18). Photo: AP
Morocco have a number of exciting players in their ranks, including the Schalke midfielder Amine Harit (No. 18). Photo: AP

Morocco are led by two-time Africa Cup of Nations winner Hervé Renard. Hakim Ziyech and Amine Harit, the two gifted midfielders, will provide the attacking thrust, with the former also a major threat with set pieces. Feyenoord’s Karim El Ahmadi will shield the defence, which will be led by captain Mehdi Benatia. Yassine Bounou, one of the best players at Girona this season as they enjoy an exceptional debut campaign in La Liga, will provide solidity in goal.

Morocco’s other midfield talents include Younès Belhanda, the Amrabat brothers, Sofyan and Nordin, and Sofiane Boufal. Real Madrid youngster Achraf Hakimi is in the mix at right-back, while Nabil Dirar and Romain Saïss will bring the necessary experience in defence. However, scoring could be a bit of a concern, with no clear favourites up front.

If Renard sets up his team to exploit its best aspects and gives his players the licence to express themselves, they will be a delight to watch. Morocco have the makings of being as entertaining as Algeria in 2014. They will start favourites against Iran and it should be an even game against Portugal. A favourable result against the latter may just be enough for a spot in the round of 16.

Iran, under the pragmatic management of Carlos Queiroz, will look for defensive solidity before indulging nimble-footed attackers like Sardar Azmoun and AZ Alkmaar winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who has enjoyed a prolific campaign in the Dutch Eredivisie.

Iran have a reputation for being compact in defence and frustrating the opposition by denying them space before hitting on the counter. They are in the perfect group to deploy that tactic—all three of their opponents thrive in space, and Team Melli have the pace to hurt them.

Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo will be keen to add the World Cup to his collection of trophies. Photo: AP
Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo will be keen to add the World Cup to his collection of trophies. Photo: AP

Portugal will fancy their chances of following Spain to the knockout stages but they can’t afford to drop their guard in any of the three games. Portugal failed to make it out of their group in Brazil and reached the knockout stage at the last Euros only because the expanded competition allowed third-placed teams with a chance to advance.

Midfield is a strong feature for Portugal as well. Bernardo Silva, João Moutinho, William Carvalho and Rúben Neves have performed well for at their clubs. Up front, Gonçalo Guedes has been in superb form at Valencia, while André Silva has had a mixed campaign at AC Milan.

Cristiano Ronaldo is at his best playing off a striker, and, to enable the team’s leading star, Portugal will need Silva in top form. An ageing defence, with Pepe and Bruno Alves both above 35, is unlikely to maintain a high tempo for the full 90 minutes, and that will be a major source of concern for manager Fernando Santos.

For analysis of the other 2018 FIFA World Cup groups, click here.