Ronaldo to come under siege from Ezatolahi and other key Iran v Portugal stars

Chris Bailey 24/06/2018
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Cristiano Ronaldo scored against Morocco after netting a hat-trick versus Spain.

Cristiano Ronaldo has not yet wobbled under the weight of this reliant Portugal side and he will be called upon once more to find inspiration against Iran and secure safe passage from Group B.

Morocco picked at the seams of an aging Portuguese defence and though Iran do not have the same attacking prowess, when needing a goal last week, they gave mighty Spain an almighty scare in defeat.

We look at some of the key match-ups below – and it’s not all about Mr Ronaldo.

SARDAR AZMOUN v CRISTIANO RONALDO

25 06 2018 key battles Iran v Portugal 1

When Ronaldo almost broke the sound barrier with his vicious header early on against Morocco, it seemed he was about to run away with the Golden Boot.

But despite scoring his fourth goal of the tournament in the fourth minute of the game, Real Madrid’s living legend could not force another – no matter how hard he tried.

Indeed this was vintage Ronaldo in snapshot form rather than his 90-minute masterclass against Spain. The 33-year-old wasted two inviting free-kicks – whereas he stuck it on the postage stamp on that fantastic opening night – and took six shots for the return of just that one goal.

However, with Bernardo Silva and Goncalo Guedes proving calamitous deputies in attack so far, Ronaldo is hardly being selfish. He knows that Portugal’s attack rests on his shoulders – a burden he is only too happy to carry.

For the first time in this tournament Sardar Azmoun will be afford a chance to really stretch his legs as Iran have no option but to release the handbrake in search of victory.

Azmoun has taken 60 touches across 180 minutes so far. That’s 38 fewer than Ronaldo and given that the 23-year-old is supposed to be Team Melli’s leading light, Carlos Queiroz must work out how to bring him more into play.

Fortunately for them the challenge of creating space in-between Pepe, Jose Fonte and William Carvalho should be a touch less difficult than the Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets triumvirate.

The Rubin Kazan striker has the pace to worry Pepe and Fonte’s creaking legs and is physical in the air should Team Melli have better luck feeding him through the air rather than on ground.

Azmoun has only scored against Algeria and Lithuania for his country this year – it’s time to step up in the big leagues.

SAEID EZATOLAHI v JOAO MOUTINHO

25 06 2018 key battles Iran v Portugal 2(2)

Joao Moutinho projects an ocean of calm amid a rather patchy midfield for Portugal. Fernando Santos relies on the Monaco star to both be an effective shield and classy distributor. He is undoubtedly both of those things – but the problem is whether that’s enough.

Partner William Carvalho had a fine game against Spain but versus Morocco, he was overran as the pace of Portugal’s two-man midfield in a 4-4-2 was ruthlessly exposed.

Moutinho is intelligent enough to make up for his own shortcomings physically and is not afraid of the rough stuff, either, having made nine tackles across those two games and wedding that to an extremely impressive pass success rate just shy of 90 per cent.

Iran’s midfield will throw their weight around and whether it’s by skill or will, look for Moutinho to have a big game.

One Iranian who certainly impressed against Spain was Saeid Ezatolahi, who made up for missing the dramatic opening win versus Morocco due to suspension.

Queiroz was right to tinker with that winning formula. The 21-year-old did what many more celebrated midfielders could not and anticipated Spain’s quicksilver passing triangles several times during the match.

The Moutinho to Ronaldo connection will be more vital than ever for Portugal with the wingers misfiring and the FC Rostov destroyer must ruffle both for Iran to succeed. Not a big ask, then …

ALIREZA BEIRANVAND v RUI PATRICIO

25 06 2018 key battles Iran v Portugal 3

Alireza Beiranvand left his nomadic family to achieve his dreams in Tehran. He’s gone from sleeping rough to living out his dreams.

Only the most fortuitous of deflected goals from Diego Costa has beaten the Iran stopper so far. While he was a helpless spectator for that one, just moments before the 25-year-old was in the thick of action to stop a goal-bound effort from Pique and then a rasping effort from Busquets.

He has had the benefit of a solid and packed Iranian defensive line to help him out and he’s likely to come under more pressure here, with Team Melli needing nothing short of a win.

Surprisingly though, Portugal counterpart Rui Patricio has made more saves than Beiranvand across two games – underlining the frailties that both Spain and Morocco laid bare in that defence.

The 30-year-old has just signed for newly-promoted Premier League team Wolves on a free transfer after the falling out at Sporting Lisbon and there may not be a better signing this summer.

He somehow scrambled across his goal to keep out Younes Belhanda’s pin-point header in a save that drew comparisons with Gordon Banks’ stop against Pele in 1970. Overkill, perhaps, but not far off.

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The battle for top spot, Denis Cheryshev, Luis Suarez and more Uruguay v Russia talking points

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Key men: Luis Suarez and Denis Cheryshev.

Uruguay take on hosts Russia on Monday in Group A of the World Cup at the Samara Arena (18:00 kick-off).

Both teams have already booked their places in the last 16 having secured maximum points from their respective clashes against Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Still, there is plenty on the line as Russia look to continue their excellent form and ride the wave of vociferous home support while South American giants Uruguay seem to be working their way through the tournament without yet having hit top form.

Here, we assess the key talking points ahead of the match.

Plenty to play for

The only way Uruguay can top the group is by winning this one while a draw will do for Russia given their superior goal difference.

The prize at stake for topping this pool is a second round contest against the runners-up in Group B, which is likely to be either Spain or Portugal – two teams currently separated in one-two placings by disciplinary records.

With both of those nations in Group B playing later in the day on Monday, La Celeste and Russia will face an anxious wait to find out who they will come up against in the next stage. Let’s not forget, Iran are in the reckoning to advance too, though they must beat Portugal.

Facing either La Roja or Cristiano Ronaldo’s men is about as tough as it gets, and as such, you could go as far to say it doesn’t really matter who you play. A clash with Team Melli would represent an easier challenge, on paper, at least.

It will indeed be fascinating to see how these two Group A outfits approach the game with the knockouts in mind.

Russia's supporters wave national flags during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A football match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on June 14, 2018. (Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO MOBILE PUSH ALERTS/DOWNLOADS (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

A nation expects: Russia fans are expected to be in good voice in Samara.

Build-up marred by anti-doping rumours

Russia could not have wished for a better beginning to the tournament and qualification through to round two is the furthest they’ve gone in the post-Soviet Union era (1991 onwards).

However, this has been overshadowed somewhat after a senior US anti-doping official told the Guardian that it would be “naive” not to think Russia could violate anti-doping rules during the World Cup. It follows the statistic that the Russian team have covered more kilometeres (233km) than any other side over the first two games.

For now, Stanislav Cherchesov’s men have to ignore the media and not lose any unnecessary momentum on and off the pitch. Selection-wise, they have though got some natural tweaks to attend to and could reshuffle the pack in other areas.

Left-back Yuri Zhirkov, who came off late on against Egypt with an ankle injury, will be spared from the first eleven with Fedor Kudryashov parachuted into the defence.

Alan Dzagoev’s troublesome hamstring injury will no doubt not be risked while midfield talisman, former Real Madrid man Denis Cheryshev, who has scored three goals so far, may be given a bit more of a rest.

The 27-year-old has led by example but has been withdrawn early from Russia’s first two games and it is vital they keep him fit for a bigger test to come.

Do not expect lone frontman Artem Dzyuba, who has netted twice so far, and the nation’s newest star and darling, Alexsander Golovin, to dip out of action.

TOPSHOT - Russia's midfielder Denis Cheryshev celebrates scoring the 2-0 goal during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A football match between Russia and Egypt at the Saint Petersburg Stadium in Saint Petersburg on June 19, 2018. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO MOBILE PUSH ALERTS/DOWNLOADS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

A need for game management? Russia could opt to protect Denis Cheryshev.

Uruguay would like to freshen things up and may well do, but they are thin on quality and experience beyond their first XI.

They are without centre-back Jose Gimenez for this one. The loss of the Atletico Madrid star, who plies his trade at the heart of the defence alongside stalwart Diego Godin, is big, but it is hoped his thigh injury is not too serious and his unavailability is more of a precautionary measure.

Sporting Lisbon star Sebastian Coates should come in and fill the void.

ROSTOV-ON-DON, RUSSIA - JUNE 20: Jose Gimenez of Uruguay battles for possession with Fahad Almuwallad of Saudi Arabia during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group A match between Uruguay and Saudi Arabia at Rostov Arena on June 20, 2018 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Gimenez’s absence is a blow.

What can we expect from Luis Suarez…

The Barcelona hitman celebrated his 100th Uruguay appearance with his 52nd goal – the only goal in the win over Saudi – last time out.

The 31-year-old has now scored at three consecutive World Cup finals for his country although he has looked leggy after 180 minutes of football and struggled to influence proceedings, bar his goal poacher effort.

Just one dribble in two matches and a passing success completion of less than 70 per cent goes some way to showing his lack of impact when linking with the midfield or indeed making trademark runs.

Veteran coach Oscar Tabarez could certainly consider bringing him off in the second-half and he has instead been right to put so much faith into Uruguay’s new generation of talent.

The likes of Rodrigo Bentancur (20), Nahitan Nandez, Lucas Torreira (both 22) and Giorgian De Arrascaeta (24), among others, certainly have the staying power and youthfulness to take this team forward at the tournament.

No longer do Uruguay solely have to rely on their most famous names.

TOPSHOT - Uruguay's forward Luis Suarez shouts during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A football match between Uruguay and Saudi Arabia at the Rostov Arena in Rostov-On-Don on June 20, 2018. (Photo by Pascal GUYOT / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO MOBILE PUSH ALERTS/DOWNLOADS (Photo credit should read PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images)

It hasn’t been easy for Suarez so far.

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Carefree Morocco can play into Spain's hands and other key tactics ahead of Group B's deciding day

Matt Jones 24/06/2018
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Spain take on Morocco in their final Group B encounter at the World Cup, with La Roja requiring a point in order to confirm passage to the knockout rounds of the tournament.

Morocco, meanwhile, may be heading home, but that won’t stop the Atlas Lions from trying to exit the tournament with a roar rather than a whimper.

Here, we analyse the key tactical talking points ahead of the game.

 

A MATCH OF STYLES

Iran v Spain: Group B - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

Even though they’re in a commanding position to qualify from the group and their opponents are already out of the tournament, don’t expect Fernando Hierro to overload his team with changes.

Spain have not lost a game since they were knocked out of Euro 2016 by Italy, and are unbeaten in their last 22 matches – they won’t want that to change.

Morocco may be out but the Atlas Lions will want to leave Russia with pride, so expect them to come out and give Spain a game and play exactly how they have done in the previous two games – with plenty of style and flair.

Morocco coach Herve Renard has already said his team will go all out in their final showcase and aim to “finish with flying colours” though their desire to try and match Spain could play right into the hands of La Roja.

With the exciting array of talent the African side have at their disposal, like Hakim Ziyech, and attack-minded full-backs in Achraf Hakimi and Nabil Dirar, Morocco troubled Portugal no end but they will likely leave plenty of space for Spain to attack at the back.

Spain faced an aerial bombardment in their hard-fought 1-0 win over Iran, with 20 battles won in all in the air (Gerard Pique triumphing in eight alone). Against Portugal they only won 11.

Morocco will let their feet do the talking, which will be music to Spain’s ears.

 

ATLAS LIONS WILL ROAR ONCE MORE

Portugal v Morocco: Group B - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

Morocco have a case to put forward for being the unluckiest team in the tournament so far; they dominated Iran in their opener and bombarded European champions Portugal – but only have two 1-0 defeats to show for it.

They enjoyed a 67.8 to 32.2 per cent domination over Team Melli in possession and completed 81 per cent of their passes compared to Iran’s 51. They also bossed both categories (45.3 to 54.7 per cent possession and 72-76 per cent pass success) against Portugal, and rained down 15 shots on Rui Patricio’s goal compared to 10 from their opponents as they surged back after threatening to capitulate when falling 1-0 behind early on.

They have proven already that no matter who the opponent, they will play their expansive, attacking game, with every player on the field, bar the goalkeeper, getting involved.

Watford winger Nordin Amrabat, in danger of missing out against Portugal due to a concussion suffered in the opening game, started and epitomised Morocco’s tenacity this tournament. He tore Raphael Guerreiro to shreds as he embarked on six dribbles – the most of any Atlas Lion and two fewer than the entire Portugal team.

Morocco have fired in more shots than their opponents in each of their last six World Cup defeats (Portugal and Iran 2018; Brazil 1998; Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and Belgium in 1994), so expect them to have another crack at Spain in Kaliningrad.

TWEAKING THE FORMATION

Koke

With Spain likely to find themselves in a match with a side that, like themselves, play attractive football, you can expect Hierro to introduce a tweak in formation, with a possible return to the easier on the eye 4-2-3-1 we saw against Portugal in their explosive World Cup opener.

To combat the height and defensive nous of Iran, the former Real Madrid defender opted to shore up his XI and leave no holes for the number one ranked side in Asia to exploit, lining his side up in a more rigid 4-1-4-1 when not in possession.

Expect Sergio Busquets, who screened the defence superbly against Team Melli, to get some creative assistance this time around in order to counteract Morocco’s more natural attacking instincts.

Despite their narrow victory they did struggle to break down stubborn Iran, with Diego Costa’s goal a fortuitous one.

Atletico Madrid’s Koke was kept on the bench in Kazan, with Hierro opting instead for the pace and industry of Real Madrid’s Lucas Vazquez. But Koke should return here alongside the Barcelona lynchpin.

Another option for Hierro could be to rest the legs of veterans Andres Iniesta or David Silva and bring in Real starlet Marco Asensio to add further panache.

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