The glamour tie of the opening round of World Cup fixtures may well be Portugal and Spain, but that is not to say Morocco v Iran is any less exciting.
It’s a chance for both to get a foothold in the tournament, something they will undoubtedly need as they then face the two European heavyweights with the seemingly impossible task of taking points from them and heading into the knockout rounds.
Here are some of the key tactical talking points ahead of the encounter.
Defensively sound Iran can’t afford to be unadventurous
Both sides boast attacking prowess but it is their defensive solidity that earned them places in Russia and is their greatest strength.
Six clean sheets for Morocco and just five goals conceded in 18 games for Iran during the qualification stages prove this.
Both backlines will come under stern examination you would think from European giants Spain and Portugal – but with the two smaller nations meeting in the Group B opener, their creative players will have to take centre stage.
Iran played ultra-defensive football four years ago in Brazil and it didn’t work as they got dumped out of Group F, netting a joint low single goal alongside Honduras and Cameroon.
Four years on, they are still solid under Carlos Queiroz but offer far more going forward, with Sardar Azmoun, referred to, at least in his homeland, as the ‘Iranian Messi’, having emerged as a goalscorer of some substance.
He will be aided by the Eredivisie’s top scorer Alireza Jahanbakhsh, former Fulham man Ashkan Dejagah and Mehdi Taremi who form a tantalising attacking quartet.
With the huge rise in their attacking potential, we will likely see much more from them moving forward.
Morocco’s youth of the nation
Herve Renard has picked a vibrant and effervescent young squad to take on the world in Russia – but there might be some concerns over inexperience.
The Atlas Lions’ squad has an average age of 27.4 years, placing them 22nd in terms of the youngest – England’s is the youngest at 26.
But only two teams – England and Tunisia – have a squad with fewer caps on average per player (20) than Morocco’s 22.
Real Madrid starlet Achraf Hakimi (just 19) is set to line up at left-back against Iran, while Ajax’s wantaway wizard Hakim Ziyech (25) and Schalke’s fresh-faced Amine Harit (20) will likely start in the two wide positions, with 24-year-old Ayoub El Kaabi ploughing a lone furrow up front – he has 11 goals in his first 10 national team appearances.
What these talented youngsters lack in experience, however, they will make up with pace and sheer excitement, with Ziyech and Harit coming off impressive domestic campaigns in the Netherlands and Germany respectively.
Ziyech, in particular, is already in demand coming into the tournament with Liverpool and Roma eying a deal for him.
It must also be pointed out that the youngsters have old heads like Mbark Boussoufa, Younes Belhanda, Karim El Ahmadi and skipper Medhi Benatia to anchor soaring talent.
Iran reaping rewards of long term stability
Queiroz is one of the 2018 World Cup’s longest-serving coaches – having been at the helm of Team Melli for seven years. In international football that is a veritable lifetime.
Among the long-term benefits of sticking with the same manager is being able to properly get to grips with the role and stamping your mark.
The 65-year-old is hugely experienced having managed Real Madrid, Portugal and been assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.
Since 2011 he has developed a well-functioning football machine that builds from the back and champions 4-2-3-1 with a reliance on the counter-attack.
However, while this has worked very well so far, he has noticeably decided to employing much more aggressive tactics in recent friendlies, no doubt preparing his side for a glut of goals that will be needed to combat opponents in this aggressive looking group.
He is also renowned for introducing Iranian diaspora players to the squad including German Iranians Daniel Davari and Dejagah, Dutch Iranian Reza Ghoochannejhad, Swedish Iranians Omid Nazari and Saman Ghoddos, and Iranian American Steven Beitashour among others – something that has raised the country’s profile.
Renard is the Atlas Lions’ mane man
Renard’s coaching career has been almost as colourful as his striking tan.
Having coached a myriad of nations and teams since taking up his first post with SC Draguignan in his native France in 1999, it is in charge of national teams that he has earned most acclaim – lifting two Africa Cup of Nations crowns with the Ivory Coast and Zambia (he is the only coach to win the competition with two different teams).
The one-time Cambridge United manager returned to club management after leading Les Elephants to their second AFCON title but was sacked after only four months in charge of Lille in September 2015.
He returned to the international arena the following February and, in charge of the Atlas Lions, tamed his old side the Ivory Coast on the way to reaching Russia – taking Morocco to their first World Cup since 1998.
Renard has instilled a fighting spirit and solidity in Morocco to end the country’s lengthy World Cup absence.
Although there is a healthy sprinkling of youth to the new-look Morocco, Renard asked Boussoufa to step back from his attacking duties and, along with Karim El Ahmadi, the experienced pair plus Belhanda complete a tenacious triangle that presses the opposition when Morocco lose possession.
He also moved Los Blancos right-back Hakimi to the left of his back four, switching midfielder Romain Saiss to central defence to utilise his height.
Morocco were the first African country to top a World Cup group in Mexico 32 years ago and are appearing at their fifth finals. 1986 was the only time they emerged from the group and they will not be fancied by many to negotiate their way out of 2018’s Group of Death.
But they are probably slightly better equipped to deal with the might of Spain and Portugal than Iran. If he can lead the Atlas Lions out of this perilous situation, it will rank among Renard and the country’s greatest feats.