Morocco v Iran talking points as minnows look to give Spain and Portugal headache

Matt Jones 13/06/2018
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Carlos Quieroz (c)

Morocco and Iran will feature in the third game of the 2018 World Cup and kick-off the action in Group B – otherwise known as the Group of Death.

Both sides come into the tournament under the radar in the sense that both are immediate underdogs with the reigning European champions Portugal and 2010 world champions Spain in their midst.

With the two super powers featuring in the other Group B game on Friday, this encounter is a chance for both Team Melli and the Atlas Lions to pounce on a priceless three points.

It all comes down to this

Ayoub El Kaabi has scored 11 goals in his first 10 Morocco appearances.

Ayoub El Kaabi has scored 11 goals in his first 10 Morocco appearances.

Group B has been deemed 2018’s Group of Death. And the opening fixtures have thrown up some intriguing battles, with the two favourites to progress, Spain and Portugal, going up against each other, while underdogs Morocco and Iran clash.

Both of the latter sides have a chance but one won’t if there is a victor in the group opener on Friday.

This begs the question; will we see a tense and turgid, perhaps typical, opening encounter? Or will we get a fast-paced goal feast in which two talented teams will feel they simply have to go for it? Let’s hope for the latter.

It certainly should be entertaining and both teams boast impressive forward lines.

The Atlas Lions will be slight favourites to secure victory in Saint Petersburg, with a star-studded attack spearheaded by Ayoub El Kaabi, 24, who has started his international career at a frightening pace – bagging a breakneck 11 goals in just 10 appearances.

They came through African qualifying superbly – finishing top of a group that contained 2015 Africa Cup of Nations champions Ivory Coast, whose three successive runs to the World Cup finals was halted.

Iran have their own emerging young talent in 23-year-old Rubin Kazan frontman Sardar Azmoun, whose 23 goals in 33 internationals have already fired him into fifth place on his nation’s all-time top scorers’ list.

Another intriguing layer to this tantalising tussle is that the two sides have never met before, either at a competitive level or in friendlies.

A case for the defence

Jalal Hosseini (l) has surprisingly been left out of Iran's World Cup squad.

Jalal Hosseini (l) has surprisingly been left out of Iran’s World Cup squad.

If Iran are to stand a chance of emerging from the group, then their stingy defence is going to have to be absolutely key.

Iran had the meanest backline in Asian qualifying – at one stage going almost 1,000 minutes without conceding a goal.

Throughout the third and fourth rounds of Asian qualifying they conceded just five goals – in 18 games. This included allowing just two in 10 games in the third round as they became the third team to reach the tournament – including Russia who qualify automatically as hosts, and Brazil.

Carlos Queiroz’s side didn’t even concede those two goals until the 10th and final game of Group A – in a 2-2 draw with Syria.

With this in mind, it was a massive surprise when long-term Iran coach Queiroz – who has been at the helm of the number one ranked team in Asia since 2011 – left out veteran centre-back and captain Jalal Hosseini.

Hosseini, who played at the 2014 tournament, was a surprise omission after the 36-year-old had started half of Iran’s matches in the final round of qualifying and was a key member of a defence that conceded those miserly two goals.

Although he last started a qualifying match in June 2017, the third to last game against Uzbekistan (2-0 win), he has remained an integral part of Queiroz’s squad.

He also remains a key component at club level for Persepolis, who won the most recent Persian Gulf Pro League title, and scored a late winner that saw them beat the UAE’s Al Jazira to earn them an AFC Champions League quarter-final berth, in May.

Rouzbeh Cheshmi has lined up alongside Hosseini’s regular centre-back partner Morteza Pouraligani in recent friendlies, and is expected to start – but only has 10 caps.

Making history for their nations

Ajax's Hakem Ziyech is part of a formidable Morocco attack.

Ajax’s Hakem Ziyech is part of a formidable Morocco attack.

While the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain are considered the favourites to lift the World Cup trophy in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on July 15, the tournament hosts plenty of nations who have no chance of success but will be content to simply make an impact.

Iran will be making their fifth finals appearance and are yet to go beyond the first round.

Morocco, meanwhile, have the distinction of being the first team from Africa to win a group. They are also making their fifth appearance but their first in 20 years.

How both must yearn to be this year’s Colombia, who stole the hearts of neutrals four years ago in Brazil, or Ghana’s Black Stars who shone so brightly in South Africa in 2010.

Most won’t give either side a glimmer of hope of being able to make that impact, with European giants Spain and Portugal in the same group.

But neither Team Melli nor the Atlas Lions will provide easy prey for the powerhouses.

Morocco boast a string of talented high-profile players like Juventus defender Mehdi Benatia, former Al Jazira schemer Mbark Boussoufa, rising Real Madrid talent Achraf Hakimi, emerging national team goal machine El Kaabi and Ajax talent Hakim Ziyech.

Iran, meanwhile, also possess a wealth of attacking talent in Azmoun, as well as Mehdi Taremi, former Premier League man Ashkan Dejagah and AZ Alkmaar’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who was this season’s top scorer in the Eredivisie.

They may be considered minnows but they can cause mighty headaches for both of the big boys.

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Julen Lopetegui sacked as Spain coach one day before 2018 World Cup

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The head of the Spanish Football Association has pointed the finger of blame at Real Madrid as the nation’s World Cup preparations descended into turmoil following the sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament.

Spanish Football Federation president Luis Rubiales acted swiftly to remove Lopetegui – who it was announced on Tuesday will take over at Real Madrid from next season.

Real’s announcement said he would begin his new role following the World Cup, but Rubiales was unhappy to have only been made aware of the news five minutes before the Champions League winners made the news official.

On Wednesday, Spain delayed a press conference at the Krasnodar Stadium by well over an hour before Rubiales addressed the media.

“We have been forced to dispense with the national coach, we wish him the best of luck” he said.

“I don’t want to get into how Real Madrid should go about things. The Spanish team is the team of all Spain.

Luis Rubiales

“If it had been up to Julen it wouldn’t have happened in this way and I wouldn’t have found out five minutes beforehand.

“The negotiation occurred without the RFEF having any information. (We were told) just five minutes before the press release. We have a way of behaving that needs to be adhered to.

“Obviously there was some sort of problem with communication but we can’t be expected to find out about something like this five minutes (before the announcement) and not take the necessary decisions.”

Rubiales would not be drawn on who would succeed Lopetegui – who did not lose any of his 20 games as national manager – but seemed to suggest a new man could be in place as early as later on Wednesday.

“I don’t want to get into names but we’ll make an announcement shortly,” he added.

“As of this afternoon, with the new coach and his staff, we’ll move forward. I feel very close to the players and to Julen.

“I have spoken to them and I can assure you that the players and the the new coaching staff will do everything possible to lead the team as far as possible, but it’s a complicated situation.”

Spain Under-21 manager Albert Celades, who is part of the coaching staff with the senior squad in Russia, and Spain’s director of football Fernando Hierro are two of the possible replacements as head coach heading into the World Cup.

Provided by Press Association Sport

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Mohamed Salah's fitness has everyone talking ahead of Egypt v Uruguay World Cup opener

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Mohamed Salah is working hard behind the scenes.

Egypt and Uruguay clash in their Group A opener at the multi-purpose Ekaterinburg Arena in Yekaterinburg on Friday lunchtime (16:00 UAE time).

The Pharaohs are contesting their first World Cup since 1990 and will feel a wealth of support, as well as expectation, from their passionate Arab fanbase.

For Uruguay, who are of course two-time winners of football’s biggest trophy (1930 and 1950), the South American nation will be optimistic about going one further than their last-16 showing four years ago.

Here, we analyse the key talking points ahead of their clash in a competitive group also featuring hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Will Mohamed Salah feature?

This is the golden question no one quite knows the answer to yet, perhaps even those inside the Egypt camp.

The Liverpool star has been put through his paces by the team’s physio team at their Akhmat Arena stadium base in Grozny and has responded very well to treatment for the shoulder injury he sustained in the Champions League final against Real Madrid.

However, he did take some part in Wednesday’s training session, for the most part, he has been training alone.

It remains to be seen whether Egypt will risk fielding their best player when not fully fit.

The challenge of facing Uruguay is arguably the toughest within Group A and Egypt may feel Salah would benefit from more rest and recovery in order to be firing for their match on June 19 against Russia.

That may be a wise call and it is perhaps a bonus for Egypt, in the meantime, considering they have been able to plan as if the 25-year-old would not be available for the opener for over a month.

Despite a disappointing season with Stoke City, new Huddersfield Town recruit Ramadan Sobhi should step into Salah’s boots on the right-flank.

Egypt's forward Mohamed Salah (L) attends a training session at the Akhmat Arena stadium in Grozny on June 12, 2018, ahead of the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP) (Photo credit should read KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Work in progress: Mohamed Salah has been training alone.

The Luis Suarez factor

Simply put, if the Barcelona star fires at the top of the pitch – Uruguay win the match.

Alongside Paris Saint-Germain star Edinson Cavani, the experienced duo have formed a clinical and telepathic understanding. The two combined brilliantly as Suarez scored during last Thursday night’s 3-0 World Cup warm-up friendly victory over Uzbekistan.

At 31, the former Kop idol loves proving his doubters wrong and 34 goals last term for the Blaugrana was evidence his powers haven’t waned significantly.

Suarez, a veteran of 98 caps and 51 goals for his country, will want to cash in on what will likely be his final World Cup.

Uruguay's forward Luis Suarez takes part in a training session of Uruguay's national football team ahead of the Russia 2018 World Cup at the Sport Centre Borsky, in Nizhny Novgorod, on June 12, 2018. (Photo by MARTIN BERNETTI / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images)

Main threat: Luis Suarez.

Is this match-up a clash of one and two in Group A?

Both of these teams are widely tipped to progress to the second round of the tournament, with Uruguay the favourites to top proceedings and Egypt to clinch second spot.

Hector Cuper’s side will feel as though matches to come against Russia and Arab rivals Saudi Arabia are more winnable, especially if Salah is back for then, so they could in theory set their stall out for a draw on Friday.

For Le Celeste, they will be confident of overpowering Egypt and laying one hand on top having carried good momentum from a fruitful South American qualifying campaign which saw them pip Argentina into second place.

Uruguay's forward Luis Suarez (C) walks past his teammates as they take part in a training session of Uruguay national football team ahead of the Russia 2018 World Cup at the Sport Centre Borsky, in Nizhny Novgorod on June 11, 2018. (Photo by MARTIN BERNETTI / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images)

Uruguay are capable of causing an upset or two.

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