Group B is interesting. There are two clear candidates to move on, and two who are hoping to hang in as best they can. The only real competition is between those top two. Who will win the group? Let’s see…
To be honest, Spain should top Group B without much of an issue. They are the strongest team, and should be favored to make a run at least to the quarterfinals. That said, they haven’t had much success as of late. 10 years ago they were solid. Scary, even. Then they fell off a bit. This year they should be a force. For those of you who are into betting (looking at you, Mark) their odds to win are 6-1.
David De Gea is arguably the best keeper in the world today. United may have only finished second in the Premier League, but De Gea was basically a human wall. Without him, they may not even have finished top 6. In 37 matches, he had 115 saves and 18 clean sheets. At one point in December, he faced 15 shots and saved 14 of them. So, yeah, he’s good.
In addition to their shot stopper, the Spanish defense is fortified by veterans. Gerard Pique, a long time Barcelona defender wrote a great piece for the Player’s Tribune about his life, but also an athlete’s role in society. In the midfield they have the lsco, David Silva, and long time international Andres Iniesta. Up top they’ll play Diego Costa. A forward who gets under opponents’ skins so badly that he should see just as much red as he does yellow. But he’s good. And gives Spain a legitimate shot. Personally, I think they’ll go out in the Semis, but don’t simply jump on the Germany or Brazil trains. Spain is the real deal.
Without Cristiano Ronaldo, they’d still be a guarantee to get through this group. With him, they’re still likely going to finish second. Portugal has a lot of talent. However, their style of play makes me want to tear my eyes out. If Ronaldo isn’t making a cut to beat a defender to the ball, launching a rocket from outside the box, or going for a bicycle kick from 12 yards out, this team is boring.
They have a strong enough defense and a solid midfield, and they generally put every single one of those guys behind the ball. They rely on Ronaldo to get up and put them ahead. Then they park the bus. It is legitimately the style of play that puts Americans off soccer.
Somehow that style won them the 2016 Euros. In that tournament, they drew 3 times in the group stage, and moved on as one of the higher point totals of 3rd place teams. Once they hit the knockout stage, they only had 1 win that seemed legitimate. Granted, a win is a win. But only 1 match was won outright in 90 minutes. In the round of 16 they went to extra time and beat Croatia 1-0. In the Quarterfinal they finished extra time 1-1, went to penalties, and just edged Poland. They beat Wales 2-0 in the semi, and it took 120 minutes to beat France in the final.
Again, a win is a win, but it sure seemed like Portugal backed into that one. I don’t think they’re going to be that lucky this time around. SportsLine has them currently at 25-1. I think that’s generous.
I’d be lying if I told you I knew a lot about the Iranian team. They’re at 500-1, and somehow those aren’t the worst odds in the tournament. One guy I do know a little bit about is Alireza Jahanbakhsh. The attacking midfielder currently plays for AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie (the Dutch league), and led the league with 21 goals. He hasn’t been able to recreate that in international play, only scoring 4 goals. The Iranians will be hoping he can ride the wave of his club season. If he can be another threat alongside Mehdi Taremi, who has 11 goals in 25 games for Iran, they may be able to play spoiler. They could finish third, but I think they’ll end up bottom of the group.
The Moroccans have had a solid year so far, having hosted and won the African Cup of Nations. However they also sit at 500-1 odds. It’s been 20 years since they’ve qualified for the World Cup, and I almost feel bad they fell into Group B. They do have a talented squad, but I don’t think they have quite enough to leapfrog Spain or Portugal.
Medhi Benatia is a seasoned defender who has played, and won, with Juventus and Bayern Munich. If he can make things interesting for Ronaldo, you never know what could happen. Somehow Dejan Lovren was able to render him virtually useless in the Champions League final, so we know it’s possible.
Up top, Hakim Zayech will be leading the charge. He led the Eredivisie with 15 assists for Ajax. There will be hope that if he can’t score himself, he can set up Khalid Boutaib or Ayoub El Kaabi. El Kaabi is young, and led the Moroccans with 9 goals in the African Cup of Nations. I wouldn’t expect him to get a start, but he certainly has the ability to come on in the second half and shake things up.
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