The first stage of every international tournament always throws up at least one group where an upset is on the cards. The upcoming World Cup has produced two groups where the progressing teams seem to be cut in stone already; England and Belgium in Group G and Spain and Portugal in Group B. In the former the challengers are Panama and Tunisia and in the latter Iran and Morocco—at first glance a similar level of competition. However, the combination of teams, the order of games and the defensive attributes of the two underdogs makes an upset in Group B far more plausible than one might suspect.
Morocco were victorious in the African Nations Championship on home soil earlier this year and have qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1998. Managed by Frenchman Herve Renard, they remained unbeaten throughout their qualification campaign, albeit with a series of draws and the help of an Ivory Coast capitulation. Their solid defence is held together by Juventus’ Mehdi Benatia and they will sit behind the ball and make themselves hard to beat.
Iran, Asia’s best World Cup hope
Iran are more regular attendees of the World Cup and are returning for their second consecutive tournament. Last time out they narrowly missed out on a famous result against Argentina thanks to a last gasp injury time curler from Lionel Messi.
Despite not winning a game in the competition since their historical victory against the USA in 1998, their progression has been more than notable under the tutorship of Carlos Queiroz whose team has risen to become ‘Asia’s best World Cup hope’. Rubin Kazan’s Sardar Azmoun and AZ Alkmaar’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh are the star players for the nation who went unbeaten throughout qualification and only conceded for the first time in their final game; a remarkable feat for a ten-game campaign. This team has become used to winning and could certainly present a threat if results go their way.
Whilst Spain, unbeaten in qualifying, have rediscovered their form since their exit at the hands of Italy in the Euros two years ago, Portugal have continued to perform since winning the competition. They have reached the semi-finals of the Confederations Cup and they topped their World Cup qualification group.
This rivalry stretches beyond football and the atmosphere will be electric as the two powerhouses meet in their opening game. Ronaldo will face a host of his Real Madrid teammates and a tightly contested affair seems almost inevitable.
The upset relies on the opening game
The results of the opening games will have a major impact on who progresses. For the upset to remain on the cards either Morocco or Iran will have to get the three points, a draw being useless for both teams as victory against Portugal or Spain would then be needed.
In a closely fought contest I see Iran having the edge over Morocco whilst Spain and Portugal are likely to take a point apiece from their grudge match. The upset then relies on the Iranian defence holding out against a Portugal side who are heavily reliant on Ronaldo and who stumbled to the semi-finals of the Euros without winning a single game outright.
A win against Morocco and a draw against Portugal may see Iran through to the knockout stages in a major World Cup upset and if Queiroz can also blunt the star-studded attack of Spain, then a single victory and two hard fought draws could send Morocco and Portugal packing.
A far-fetched theory?
Trying to predict the results of every game will almost always end in failure but in this case the possibility of an upset increases dramatically if either Morocco or Iran can win on the opening day. Both teams are capable of getting a draw against Portugal, a result that is less likely against Spain whose strength in depth is frightening.
Nevertheless, assuming that Spain have put behind their tournament troubles is dangerous. If they and Portugal fail to fire on all cylinders we could witness something remarkable as the wall-like Iranian defence could produce the kind of result that Lionel Messi prevented 4 years ago.
A group that most see as a foregone conclusion could produce a spectacular finale but if Iran vs. Morocco ends as a draw, then those of us who obsessively root for the underdog will have to turn our attention elsewhere—towards Group D perhaps.