World Cup Group B: Morocco v Iran is not the start of a beautiful friendship
Group B of the FIFA 2018 World Cup gets underway on Friday afternoon. Morocco and Iran meet in the Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg. This is a must-win for both sides. An unkind draw has pitted them against European giants Portugal and Spain.
If Morocco or Iran are to cause an upset in Group B, one will have to win this game then pick up at least a point against the Iberian juggernauts. Morocco against Iran might not be the contest in which most European fans will take an interest, but they should. One or both teams could emerge from this contest on the verge of elimination if they fail to win. Hopefully, that will encourage both to go for the jugular rather than play it safe.
FIFA Ranking: 41st
Coming into the tournament, Morocco are among the form sides. They haven't lost a game since June 2017. Their results over the last 12 months include 14 wins and four draws. Their opponents haven't been the best but it's still an impressive run. Confidence will be running high among the Atlas Lions.
This is Morocco's first appearance in the World Cup since 1998 and the country may feel like they have a bit of a score to settle. They took four points from their three games but were ousted from a last 16 slot by a late Norway winner against an already qualified, Brazil. The 1998 Moroccan side were a strong team and there are signs this XI have a bit of quality about them, too.
Mehdi Benatia is an accomplished centre-back who has played at the highest level. He will be joined by young Real Madrid defender, Achraf Hakimi. The midfield is the strongest area in the team, with the experienced trio of Karim El Ahmadi, Mbark Boussoufa and Younes Belhanda all likely to be involved. In attack, Hakim Ziyech is the star. He is also the wildcard. Ziyech was capped at underage level by the Netherlands, his birth-country, but he switched allegiance to Morocco in 2015. His performances for Ajax have won many admirers. I is believed he will be top several shopping lists this summer.
Morocco's coach is the experienced Frenchman, Herve Renard. In management since 1999, he has been much travelled. This is his first World Cup but he has had international success in the past, winning the African Cup of Nations with both Zambia and the Ivory Coast.
FIFA Ranking: 36th
Iran will come into this World Cup brimming with confidence. They cruised through the Asian qualifiers with an unbeaten record in 18 fixtures. Before losing in two friendlies this year, Team Melli had only lost one match since March 2015. Since taking over in 2011, Carlos Queiroz has instilled a winning mentality. Iran are now widely considered the best team in Asia.
One big change Queiroz made was to bring in several players from the Iranian diaspora. The talent from outside the borders has had a positive impact on the team as several players who were brought up by Iranian parents in the US and Europe have prospered under the Portuguese coach. He has also encouraged his players to take on challenges outside Iran. Fourteen of his 23-man squad now play their club football outside the country.
Iran's key players are undoubtedly Sardar Azmoun and Alireza Jahanbakhsh. Azmoun has an excellent record for Iran, scoring 23 goals in 33 games. Jahanbakhsh has just come off a sensational season in the Netherlands. His 21 goals made him Eredivisie top scorer. He also added 12 assists for AZ Alkmaar. The duo must produce the goods if Iran is to have a successful tournament.
With an excellent qualifying record, most Iranians believe their team capable of springing a surprise in this tournament. Spain and Portugal are the clear favourites to progress but this is an opportunity for Team Melli to show how good they are on a global stage. A good showing in Russia would mean the world to Iranians everywhere.
This game really looks like being a 50/50 affair. Morocco are in great form. Iran are the dominant force in Asia. I can see the teams killing each other off by playing out a draw that leaves both needing to beat one of the European giants to progress.