Iran Opponent Preview: Spain


Qualified: 1st in UEFA Group G, 9-1-0, 28 pts

Manager: Fernando Hierro

Best Finish: Winners (2010)

Last Appearance: 2014, Knocked out in Group Stage finished 3rd in group

Strengths: Play a possession style game with dynamic movements among the wingers and attacking midfield players. Strong centrally out of the back starting with David de Gea (Manchester United) at goalkeeper, Gerard Pique (Barcelona) and Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid) in central defense, and ending with Sergio Busquets (Barcelona) as the holding midfield player.

Weaknesses: Drama with the coach being sacked just two days before their first game. He signed to replace Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, who left the posting after winning his third Champions League title in a row. But he did so without informing the Spanish Federation. Age will also be a factor with Pique, Ramos, Busquets, and Iniesta all heading into the twilight of their careers. Older teams have a tendency to taper off. They also have no in form striker.

Who was left behind: Javi Martinez (FC Bayern), Marcos Alonso (Chelsea), Alvaro Morata (Chelsea), Hecter Bellerin (Arsenal), Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea), Juan Mata (Manchester United), Alberto Moreno (Liverpool), Gerard Deulofeu (Watford), Ander Herrera (Manchester United), Pedro (Chelsea), Marc Bartra (Real Betis), Dani Perejo (Valencia), Jose Callejon (Napoli)

Analysis: Spain is certainly the team to beat in Group B, despite not being one of the seeded teams for the draw. Chalk that up to Portugal’s miracle in France two summers ago. As seen by the players they left behind, their 23-man roster certainly has more depth than the others in the group. The recently sacked manager Julen Lopetegui selected a squad that heavily favored those playing in Spain with only a handful plying their trade elsewhere.

Spain still plays tiki-taka which can be described as ‘death by a thousand passes.’ They prefer to penetrate an opposing defense by passing the ball quickly, while players off the ball create space through interchanging positions. Look for the wingers and the attacking midfield players to constantly change places. Diego Costa, deservedly cast as the villain, will likely be more of a target player, while other strikers could join in the kinetic interchange.

Success, however, depends on Sergio Busquet’s ability to play the pivot role—essentially the leader of both the offensive and defensive transition. If he’s allowed to jumpstart a counter attack or distribute freely, opponents will be in for a long day. That said, he is lucky enough to have one of the best central defenses in the game—Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique. Add to those two David de Gea, who is hands down the best goalie in the world, and you have the makings of a formidable defense.

How to beat them: 1) Be comfortable not having possession. 2) Be disciplined in defense. 3) Press Busquets, don’t give him time or space to distribute. 4) Finish your chances. 5) Be physical, especially with their wingers and attacking midfield players, who are smaller and more prone to being put off by physical play. 6) Think US v Spain 2009, Brazil v Spain 2013, The Netherlands v Spain 2014, or Italy v Spain 2016.

Iran’s Chances: Personally, I like the way they match up against Spain. Iran’s midfield is stronger, bigger, and much more physical than Spain’s. Their wingers are skillful enough to create the types of chances Sardar Azmoun could finish off, while also putting the right type of pressure on Busquet. The worry, however, comes from the relatively new partnership in central defense. Iran coach Carlos Quieroz didn’t have enough warm-up matches to settle on a consistent pairing. That said, Saeid Ezatolahi will be back after missing the first game due to a red card suspension. Iran tends to be more organized when he’s playing as the holding midfield player. If they can channel their performance against Argentina in 2014, they just might pull it off.

Possible Spanish Starting 11: While I tend to agree with most of it, my guess is that against Iran Spain will opt for a more attacking formation—4-3-3, instead of the 4-2-3-1 listed. Thiago will be dropped in favor of Koke, who will push up to be alongside Isco. Asensio could also find his way into the starting lineup. My guess is that Iniesta, due to his age, won’t be able to play a full 90 minutes and if he does, he won’t be able to do so three times in ten days during the group phase.

Iran Opponent Preview: Morocco


Qualified: 1st in Group C, 3-3-0, 12 points

Manager: Herve Renard         

Best Finish: Round of 16, 1986

Last Appearance: 1998, 3rd place

Strengths:  Their manager, Herve Renard, has done a masterful job in creating a cohesive unit. He’s brought them back from virtual oblivion on the world stage.

Weaknesses: Their goalkeepers. The first-choice keeper Munir el Kajoui Mohamedi has all of four appearances for his club side this season (Numancia, Spanish 2nd Division).

Who was left behind: Sofiane Boufal (Southampton).

Analysis: Renard is leading a Moroccan team that is comprised of 60% foreign born players—mainly from France, Spain, and the Netherlands. Outside of qualifying for the first time in 20 years, the manager has been able to create a solid backline led by Mehdi Benatia (Juventus). The Atlas Lions kept a clean sheet through qualifying—albeit they only played six games, less than their other Group B opponents. That said one of the big question marks will be in goal, as the preferred starter has spent much of his club season on the bench.

In the midfield, the Moroccans will rely on a trio of veterans Younes Belhanda (Galatasary), M’Barek Boussoufa (Al Jazira), and Nordin Amrabat (Leganes) to provide some composure and leadership. Meanwhile, Renard and company will lean on Hakim Ziyech (Ajax) to provide the creative spark necessary to break down their opponents. Look for Ziyech and Amrabat to switch wings often throughout the game to change up the points of attack.

Khaled Boutaib (Boutaib) will likely be the lone target player on offense.

Morocco plays a more adventurous style than any of the other teams in the group. Where Iran and Portugal play a more direct style focusing on counter attacks and Spain plays a game that relies on a series of short passes to create opportunities, the Moroccans tend to emphasize taking defenders 1v1 and creating opportunities for 1-2 passes on the edge of the box. They like to cross from closer the end line rather than further out like Portugal. Boutaib or Belhanda will try to combine with Ziyech or Amrabat to create chances in the attacking third.  

How to beat them: Because they like to take the ball deeper into their attacking third, they’re likely exposed to the quick counter attack. Teams should get players behind the ball and make efforts to not leave other defenders exposed in a 1v1 situation.

Iran’s Chances: Iran’s manager, Carlos Quieroz, has been working on a high press during some of the friendlies. I’m not certain he’ll employ the pressing tactic all too often versus the Altas Lions. They’ll likely work to stay behind the ball to mitigate any 1v1 situations. Luckily, Iran is fairly adept at creating chances on the counter. It’s a must win for both teams, so I’m certain it’ll be exciting.

Possible Moroccan Starting 11:  From the Guardian. Based on what I read, this isn’t likely to change. Fayçal Fajr (Getafe) will likely be one of the first off the bench, especially if they need a spark.