With the World Cup fewer than two months away, the thoughts of so many soccer fans whose club sides no longer have anything to play for between now and the end of the season have already turned to the tournament in Russia.
The time for managers to name their squads for this summer is fast approaching, with most teams having just two friendlies left before the real action commences on June 14th.
A Vulnerable Favorite?
However, while host Russia’s curtain-raiser with Saudi Arabia will go down as one of the World Cup’s most underwhelming opening matches, we won’t have to wait long for a real treat. The next day, all eyes will be on an Iberian derby as Spain take on Portugal in a match that could immediately put pressure on the loser.
With Spain entering the tournament among the favorites, it could be a case of deja vu for the Portugal, who faced Germany in their opening group game four years ago. It was a match that Portugal lost, 4-0, to the eventual winners, and one that they ultimately failed to recover from, exiting the competition in the group stage. One wouldn’t bet against a repeat considering the abject nature of their performances against Egypt and The Netherlands a few weeks ago.
It took two-injury time goals from Cristiano Ronaldo to overcome the former, while a heavy defeat to the latter came as a real shock and served as a stark reminder that despite their success in France in 2016, Portugal are still very flawed. Stop their aforementioned star man — which is admittedly easier said than done — and Fernando Santos’ side generally lacks ideas in the final third.
If either Morocco or Iran can claim all three points in Group B’s other opening match, the winner will give itself a fantastic chance of reaching the knockout rounds. And Morocco unquestionably have the stronger squad. In fact, the African nation may well be a dark horse this summer to reach the tournament’s latter stages, with coach Herve Renard not only boasting an impressive tournament record but also a very solid squad.
Despite the fact that this is the Frenchman’s first time managing at an international tournament outside of Africa, the 49-year-old is the only man to have won the African Cup of Nations with two different teams. He also has experience in upsetting the odds, too, with the first of the aforementioned titles coming while he was in charge of Zambia back in 2012.
Renard’s current players with Morocco are far better than the ones he had with Ivory Coast and Zambia. And even in a group with Spain and Portugal, the Atlas Lions aren’t a side to be underestimated.
Don’t Underestimate the Atlas Lions
The vast majority of the squad are plying their trade in Europe, most notably in The Netherlands’ Eredivisie, and Renard has managed to organize the side to be very hard to beat, knowing that the technical quality is no issue. The key to that solidity is captain Medhi Benatia, who has played for some top clubs in Europe including Juventus, Roma and Bayern Munich.
The experienced centerback marshalled a defence that didn’t concede a single goal in qualifying — the only side in Russia this summer to achieve that feat — despite facing some strong opposition in the form of Ivory Coast and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon. It was perhaps the most competitive group in CAF qualifying and one that Morocco navigated superbly.
Nabil Dirar (pictured above) and Real Madrid youngster Achraf Hakimi are strong fullbacks and there’s good protection in front of the defense from the experienced Karim El Ahmadi and Romain Saiss. Morocco also possess an enviable array of attacking players. And while Ajax playmaker Hakim Ziyech is the star, the likes of Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal and Schalke’s Amine Harit also provide flair and ammunition to lone striker Khalid Boutaib.
At least one nation springs a surprise and advances more deeply through the tournament than many expect — with Costa Rica perhaps providing the biggest shock last time around — and Morocco could be that team this year. Should Morocco (who are +500 to advance from Group B) make it out of the first round, a favorable draw against one of the top two teams from Group A — by far the weakest group this summer — awaits. So reaching the quarterfinals is a distinct possibility for the North African side.
Photo: Morocco’s Nabil Dirar