Group B kicks off with a bang with possibly one of the matches of the 2018 World Cup when Spain clash with Portugal on only the second day of the tournament in Russia. Making up the rest of the group is Morocco, one of five African countries, and Iran.
Spain have had the upper hand over the 2016 Euro Champions in major competitions in recent years. The 2010 World Champions beat Portugal 1-0 in the round of 16 in South Africa at the Greenpoint Stadium with David Villa scoring the winner in the 63rd minute.
Fast forward four years and yes, you guessed it, Spain were on top again. This time in the semifinals of the 2012 European Championships, edging Portugal 4-2 in a penalty shootout.
But things have drastically changed with the Spaniards a far cry from the team that secured the country’s first World Cup in South Africa eight years ago.
The world’s sixth-ranked team’s attack is nowhere near as deadly as when Villa and Fernando Torres were around.
Another stalwart, Andres Iniesta, has hinted that will be his last World Cup should ‘nothing strange happen’.
Iniesta scored the winning goal for Spain in the 2010 World Cup final. The 34-year-old was
also was a key part of Spain’s two European Championships in 2008 and 2012.
Iniesta announced last month that he would leave Spanish club Barcelona after 16 seasons. His last match for Barcelona is on Sunday against Real Sociedad at Camp Nou.
As much as soccer isn’t a one-man game, Portugal will need talisman Cristiano Ronaldo to perform if they want to make inroads in Russia.
The proof is in the pudding.
Portugal have only lost two competitive matches since the 2014 World Cup and both times the Real Madrid striker was missing in action.
With critics ready to write him off at the start of this season, he has smashed several national records, 148 caps and 81 goals and counting, and remains as determined as ever to lead his beloved Selecao to glory.
While this reliance on veteran stars might seem like their main weakness, their newfound belief and confidence in winning big matches have been taken to a whole new level under coach Fernando Santos who has only lost four games from 24 since taking over in 2014.
Former players including midfielder Luis Figo have weighed in on Portugal’s chances.
“Portugal got drawn in one of the most difficult groups but have one of the top teams in the world right now so can aspire to the top. Although the other teams [Morocco and Iran] had fantastic qualifying campaigns, Portugal and Spain are favourites to top the group and are among the favourites to win the whole thing.”
Like their African counterparts Egypt, Morocco have qualified for the first time in 20 years. The Atlas Lions secured their spot in Russia after winning African zone Group C with a final day victory over Ivory Coast. They last competed in France in 1998 where they failed to advance from their group.
Iran will be making their fifth appearance at the World Cup finals and like Morocco, are yet to advance to the knockout stages.
Group B teams:
All kick-off times are SAST.
Friday, 15 June 2018
Morocco v Iran
Saint Petersburg Stadium, St Petersburg
Portugal v Spain
Fisht Stadium, Sochi
Wednesday, 20 June 2018
Portugal v Morocco
Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Spain v Iran
Fisht Stadium, Sochi
Monday, 25 June 2018
Spain v Morocco
Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
Portugal v Iran
Mordovia Arena, Saransk