Sports Mole previews the 2018 World Cup action as Morocco and Iran get their respective Group B campaigns underway at the Saint Petersburg Stadium.
Morocco take on Iran in Group B of the 2018 World Cup in Russia with both countries aiming to get their respective campaigns underway in positive fashion with three points at the Saint Petersburg Stadium.
Iberian powerhouses Spain and Portugal take up the other spots in the group, leaving Morocco coach Herve Renard and Iran’s Carlos Queiroz both knowing that three points are likely to be crucial should they want to muster any sort of serious challenge for second spot.
The group-stage draw was not the kindest to Renard and his charges and Morocco begin the competition in a group that also contains European champions Portugal and former World Cup winners Spain, as well as Iran.
Regardless of the insurmountable levels of competition provided by Portugal and Spain, the Atlas Lions will head into their opener against Iran full of intent as they find themselves back at the World Cup for the first time in 20 years.
Morocco last featured at the tournament during France ’98 and were unable to make it out of the group stages that summer. Should qualification and the country’s friendly build-up be much to go by, the African nation will fancy themselves to make more of a statement this time around than they did two decades ago.
Renard’s Lions enter the competition off the back of an 18-game unbeaten streak and have not tasted defeat in over a year since a second-leg qualification defeat to Equatorial Guinea that still saw them into the group stages of qualification for the tournament.
Morocco proved remarkably efficient during the country’s march through the group stages of qualification, keeping clean sheets in all six of their games. The Lion’s time in the group saw Morocco secure important victories against the likes of Mali, Gabon and the Ivory Coast.
This tournament represents Morocco’s fifth appearance at a World Cup and the country have only been able to progress from the opening stages once in their history, reaching the last 16 in 1986 before suffering defeat to West Germany.
As showcased in qualifying, Morocco’s predominant strengths are centred on some effective talent in defence and it is at the back where Morocco arguably deploy their most talented player. Juventus centre-back Mehdi Benatia has experience with some of Europe’s elite clubs and will likely prove crucial should Morocco aim to pick up a positive result against either Portugal or Spain later in the group.
Coming into the opening fixture of their tournament, Morocco have have competed in 13 World Cup fixtures and have managed to win two, draw four and lose seven when appearing at the tournament.
Recent years have not seen Morocco take on a plethora of experienced World Cup sides, although three unbeaten friendlies, inclusive of victories against Slovakia and Estonia and a draw when coming up against Ukraine in the run-up to the tournament, should leave the Lions in a positive mindset as they seek out an opening victory against Iran.
Recent form (all competitions): WWWDWW
Queiroz will be leading his Iranian side to Russia with the country now featuring in two consecutive World Cups for the first time in their footballing history.
Much like Morocco, Iran’s qualification record would have otherwise left them outside favourites to secure a few surprise scalps from the group stage had they not been drawn against the Iberian monoliths.
Iran featured as part of Asia’s qualification group and Queiroz’s side proved the only team from that section to make it to Russia without losing a single game. Across two qualification sections, Iran won 12 and drew six contests as they finished a telling seven points clear of South Korea in the qualification standings.
Those two qualification runs, again drawing parallels with Morocco, were based on some solid defensive work. Team Melli put together 12 clean sheets on the bounce before conceding two goals against Syria in their last qualification outing.
Since booking a spot in the finals, Iran have sought to prepare with 10 fixtures and have suffered just two defeats during those contests, while picking up seven victories along the way.
Alongside the guile and knowhow of former Manchester United assistant Queiroz, Iran will be hoping that key winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh can shine on the grandest of stages. The 24-year-old became the first Asian player to top the goalscoring charts in one of Europe’s top leagues last term, when Jahanbakhsh finished as the top scorer in the Dutch Eredivisie for AZ Alkmaar.
Coming up against Morocco, Iran’s main ambition will be to secure only their second victory in the history of the tournament. Iran’s first and last win in the competition came in extraordinary circumstances when Team Melli infamously beat the United States in France 20 years ago.
On the world stage, Iran almost picked up a famous point against Argentina during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil last time out, although Barcelona frontman Lionel Messi broke both Iranian and neutral hearts by bagging a 91st-minute winner in Belo Horizonte four years ago.
Recent form (all competitions): WLWWLW
Renard’s biggest headache will likely come up front where Ayoub El Kaabi might just get the nod ahead of Khalid Boutaib, whose goals proved crucial during qualifying.
Fenerbahce right-back Nabil Dirar currently stands as the only potential absentee from Morocco’s opening game, potentially providing Nordin Amrabat a chance to start at full-back.
In the creative department, Morocco should look to the influential Younes Belhanda in the hole behind El Kaabi, while Amine Harit and Hakim Ziyech should occupy the flanks.
As for Iran, skipper Masoud Shojaei will be leading his side from a position in central midfield alongside Ehsan Hajsafi, while youngster Saeid Ezatolahi will miss the first game through suspension.
Going forward, Team Melli should operate with three attackers sitting just behind frontman Sardar Azmoun, with Jahanbakhsh, Karim Ansarifard and Mehdi Taremi expected to be pulling the strings for Iran’s lone striker.
Morocco possible starting lineup:
Mohamedi; Amrabat, Benatia, Saiss, Hakimi; Boussoufa, Ahmadi; Harit, Belhanda, Ziyech; Kaabi
Iran possible starting lineup:
Beiranvand; Rezaeian, Cheshmi, Pouraliganji, Mohammadi; Safi, Shojaei; Jahanbakhsh, Ansarifard, Taremi; Azmoun
Head To Head
The 2018 World Cup will provide the first ever competitive meeting between the two countries at international level and what better way to do it than with the global football community watching on.
As mentioned, Morocco come into the tournament having won two, drawn four and lost seven out of their 13 matches in World Cup history.
As for Iran, Team Melli have managed just the one standout victory over the United States 20 years ago and have never made it out of the group stages following appearances at the 1978, 1998, 2006 and 2014 editions of the tournament.
We say: Morocco 1-0 Iran
Given that both Spain and Portugal lie in wait just around the corner, both sides will be desperate for three points if they are to harbour any sort of ambitions to make it out of the group.
The importance of the fixture will likely lead to a hard-fought and tight encounter, but each nation will be well aware of the importance of three points as the game draws closer to the 90-minute mark.
Defensive quality is arguably the highlight of both sides, although Morocco perhaps have the better creative talent and top-tier experience amongst their ranks. Amrabat, Benatia, Dirar, Romain Saiss and Achraf Hakimi have all played club football in prominent European leagues.