World Cup Candidates: Interviewing the Group B hopefuls

We go through the 2010 World Cup winners, Cristiano Ronaldo's men and more in the second of an eight part World Cup preview series.

World Cup Candidates: Interviewing the Group B hopefuls
World Cup Candidates: Interviewing the Group B hopefuls. (picture: Getty Images / Soccrates Images)

Each day we preview four new World Cup nations. Can they win the ultimate process and secure the role of reigning World champions?

Today, it's Group B. 

Spain

Known as: La Furia Roja (The Red Fury)

Address: Various 

Best previous role: World Cup winners, 2010

What are your strengths and weaknesses? 

We’re a squad full of quality players with experience of being successful at major international tournaments in the past. Julen Lopetegui has reinvigorated us since taking over as manager and we’ll fancy our chances against anyone this year. 

There are a few concerns, one of the main ones being the age of the squad. The likes of Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets, David Silva and Andrés Iniesta are all in the latter stages of their careers. We also arguably have a lack of a ‘Plan B’. If our ‘tika-taka’ style of play does not work, we could struggle. 

What happened last time out?

We were found out. After years of success, winning the 2008 European Championships and the 2010 World Cup, we were brought back down to earth. A heavy defeat to the Netherlands followed by a 2-0 defeat against Chile saw us knocked out of the group stage after just two games. However, we did restore some pride by winning our final group game against Australia

Have you set up meetings with any other candidates?

We meet Portugal on June 15 before coming face-to-face with Iran five days later, before rounding off the group stage with Morocco on June 25. We are hoping that will just be the start of our 2018 World Cup campaign. 

What’s your strategy to beat those candidates?

We will look to wear them down with our possession-based style of play. We’ll likely set up either in the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation and look to dominate games with the likes of David Silva, Isco and Andrés Iniesta in midfield. 

Who are you relying on to help you secure the job?

It’s got to be David Silva. He had a huge role to play in Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking Manchester City side this season, contributing with nine goals and 11 assists, confirming the fact that he is one of the best players in the Premier League

Aside from Silva, the likes of David De Gea, Sergio Ramos and Thiago are likely to play crucial roles if we are to be successful. Thiago needs to ensure that he offers solid protection to the back four alongside Busquets, especially against the more threatening sides such as Portugal, who we face in our first game. 

Any wildcards that might help you out?

22-year-old Marco Asensio is one of the youngest players in our relatively old squad and has only made 10 appearances for the first team. He has impressed for Real Madrid at times this season and has managed to keep Gareth Bale out of the starting line-up in the past due to the high standard of his performances. 

Finally, where do you see yourself in five years weeks? 

As winners hopefully, although settling for a semi-final spot is a real possibility.

 

Portugal

Known as: The Navigators

Address: Estádio Nacional, Oeiras, Portugal

Best Previous Role: Semi-final (2006)

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Our biggest strength is our threat on the counter. With players like Gelson Martins, Ricardo Quaresma and Bernardo Silva, we have players capable of beating their fullbacks as well as delivering excellent crosses for our forwards to take advantage of. With Cristiano Ronaldo leading the line, we hope that our star man will lead us to glory in what could be his final appearance at the FIFA World Cup finals.

One of our biggest weakness is an inability to deal with high pressing football, Egypt exposed us recently with their style of play. Teams who play similar football will have a field day against our backline that is rich in experience, however, lacks in speed in the middle. 

What happened last time out?

Brazil 2014 was a bad memory for us. Paulo Bento's management guided us to a good showing at Euro 2012, however, he could not help the team repeat similar feats in Brazil.

Our inability to hold our own against the bigger sides came back to haunt us. Germany battered us 4-0, a defeat like that against the eventual champions doesn't seem so bad in hindsight. However, things did not go well against the United States and Ghana and we exited at the group stage of the World Cup. Hopefully, this time we can go further.

Have you set up meetings with any other candidates?

We have three important clashes coming up. We start off against the mighty Spain on June 15, then five days later, we come up against an intriguing side in Morocco on June 20. The final game at the Mordovia Arena in Saransk would be against a passionate side in Iran on June 25. Favourable results against at least two of those three teams could see us progress beyond the group stages.

What's your strategy to beat those opponents?

During the Euros, it was our pragmatic approach that secured the trophy for us and it will be the same this time around as well. With pace and flair on the counter, we will look to dismantle our opposition while remaining stern defensively as well.

Who are you relying on to secure the job?

Who else but our all-time top-scorer, Ronaldo. He has enjoyed yet another successful campaign with Real Madrid, guiding Zinedine Zidane's former side to a third consecutive trophy.

He has been in tremendous goal-scoring form since the turn of the year and at 33, looks unstoppable in front of goal. This could be his final major tournament for his country, which also means the final chance to etch his name into the history books as well.

Any wildcards that might help you out?

Gonçalo Guedes will definitely be wildcard for Santos and his side at Russia. The youngster has been a star in Valencia's excellent La Liga campaign. He will look to take defences by storm from the left flank whenever given the opportunity.

Finally, where do you see yourself in five years weeks?

Hopefully heading out of the tournament with our heads held high. Reaching the finals would be the ultimate achievement, however, winning the World Cup still seems like a distant dream for us.

 

Morocco 

Known as: The Atlas Lions 

Address: Stade de Marrakech, Marrakech, Morocco 

Best previous role: Progressed to Round of 16, 1986 

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

We are back at the World Cup after a 20-year absence with the resilience and tactical solidarity that our manager Hervé Renard has instilled in us. The French coach, once of Cambridge United, has brought fighting spirit and grit to the ranks that we hadn’t seen for decades. Conceding only one goal in qualifying thanks to the experience of skipper Mehdi Benatia and talent of defensive partner Roman Saïss, we will be a hard nut to crack in Russia. 

The problems lie at the other end of the pitch. Although striker Khalid Boutaïb played a key role in securing qualification with wins over tough teams such as Ivory Coast and Gabon, our search for goals could be scarce in Russia. 

What happened last time out?

Our last World Cup experience was in France in 1998 where we agonizingly were knocked out in the group stage in the last game. With one point on the board after a draw with Norway and a defeat to a star-studded Brazil side, we managed a brilliant 3-0 victory over Scotland. In the other simultaneously played game in the group, Brazil led Norway for 80 minutes, until Tore André Flo set the Norweigan’s on their way to a historic turnaround, including an 89th minute winner, to send Norway through and break our hearts. 

Have you set up meetings with any other candidates?

Just the three. We meet Iran on June 15 before coming face-to-face with European Championship winners Portugal five days later, rounding off with Spain on June 25. We are hopeful to get a win in St-Petersburg against Iran and see what happens there on forth. 

What’s your strategy to beat those candidates?

Absorb pressure and build from there. In our most recent friendly against Ukraine, we controlled the game and should have got the win, noting all of our chances, but were held to a bore draw. 

Our coach is very experienced at international level, and boasts a very impressive CV, with two African Cup of Nations trophies to his name, with Zambia and the Ivory Coast. He sets us up in a system that allows solidarity off the ball, but free-flowing movement in transitions going forward. 

Who are you relying on to help you secure the job?

Fresh from helping Juventus to the Italian league and cup double, captain Mehdi Benatia will be the key man in Russia. Never too far away from the headlines in Italy, Benatia is a fiery and boisterous defender who is a leader of men. The French-born ex-Bayern Munich star brings the experience of an elite level European club to a team that otherwise would be lacking in this department. 

Much has been said of Morocco’s steel at the back – Benatia will play the crucial role in a back three of himself, Wolves’ Romain Saïss and Basaksehir defender Manuel Da Costa. The wing-backs have generated vast excitement in Morocco: Dani Carvajal’s Real Madrid teenage understudy Achraf Hakimi and Hamza Mendyl of Lille on the other side. Renard sets his sides up not to be beaten, and this back three/five will play a crucial role if Morocco are to progress in the tournament. 

Any wildcards that might help you out?

Hakim Ziyech could be the main man going forward. The attacking midfielder has excelled in the Eredivisie for FC Twente and now Amsterdam giants Ajax. He is known for his technical abilities off the ball, with expert vision, balance and passing skills. Being relatively unknown to the wider football world heading into the tournament, Ziyech could be one of the stars of the show that propel their name on to the world stage, with big clubs such as Roma and Liverpool already keen to capture his signature. 

Finally, where do you see yourself in five years weeks?

In another group, I would fancy us. With the defensive solidarity and trickery and technique going forward, we can give anyone a game. If we beat Iran, a draw against Portugal or Spain may just take us through – but that’s a massive ask. 

 

Iran 

Known as: Team Melli 

Address: Azadi Stadium, Tehran 

Best previous role: 14th in World Cup, 1978 

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Our manager Carlos Queiroz has ensured that we are a very well-organised side and made us difficult to beat, shown by the fact that we were unbeaten throughout our qualifying campaign and only conceded twice. 

There are a few significant weaknesses, most notably that we struggle to compete with the big boys at major tournaments. The fact that we weren’t really challenged during qualifying could work against us, as we aren’t prepared for the quality that the likes of Portugal and Spain have in their ranks. 

What happened last time out?

We did ourselves proud at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. We picked up a point in their first game by securing a goalless draw against Nigeria, before coming agonisingly close to frustrating Argentina to the same result, only to be undone by a Lionel Messi wonder-goal in injury time. However, we were comfortably beaten 3-1 by Bosnia and Herzegovina in our final game. 

Have you set up meetings with any other candidates?

We meet Morocco on June 15 in our most winnable game before coming face-to-face with 2010 winners Spain five days later, rounding off with Portugal on June 25. If we have any more games after that, we will be in dreamland. 

What’s your strategy to beat those candidates?

To make ourselves hard to beat and potentially nick a goal on the counter-attack. We normally try and pack out the midfield areas to prevent the opposition from having much space to create chances. With Sardar Azmoun in such fine form, we now have the ability to find the back of the net ourselves. 

Who are you relying on to help you secure the job?

It’s got to be Azmoun. The 23-year-old could arguably be the best striker in Asia on current form and has scored 23 goals for us since making his debut back in May 2014 against Montenegro. He scored 11 goals in qualifying and will be vital to our hopes of performing this summer. 

Aside from Azmoun, the likes of Mehdi Taremi and Jalal Hosseini are also likely to play big roles. Taremi has come up with vital goals for us in the past and will be looking to do so again this summer whilst Hosseini will bring vital experience to our backline at 36-years-old. 

Any wildcards that might help you out?

Saeid Ezatolahi is one of the hottest prospects for us right now and the Rostov midfielder has been branded as the “Persian Pogba” by some. He has only made 25 appearances for our first team so far but has all the attributes to potentially make an impact this summer if given the opportunity.  

Finally, where do you see yourself in five years weeks?

We’ll most likely have been knocked out in the group stage, but hopefully, we can do ourselves proud and perhaps pick up just our second win in World Cup finals history.