Iran’s players stormed the pitch at full-time as if they had won the World Cup rather than just their opening match after an own goal from Morocco’s Aziz Bouhaddouz gifted them a dramatic 1-0 victory on Friday.
Wasteful finishing looked to have consigned this contest at the Saint Petersburg Stadium to a goalless draw but Bouhaddouz’s mistake in injury-time means Iran emerge as the early challengers to Spain and Portugal in Group B.
For Morocco, the result is a bitter one to take.
Here, we analyse the performance of one slight bright spark in the clash – coveted star Hakim Ziyech.
Goals – 0
Assists – 0
Shots – 3
Shots on target – 1
Touches – 64
Passes – 48
Key passes – 1
Dribbles – 0
Crosses – 2
A little taster of what Ziyech can produce rather than the full platter, but he suffered with the inequality of talent around him.
Aside from Younes Belhanda, no fellow Lion showed the type of composure necessary to unpick a crafty Iran backline.
And the Ajax star, who has been linked a move away this summer with clubs like Liverpool and Roma interested, appeared restricted by a deeper role with the clear tactic from boss Herve Renard to exploit the space in behind Iran’s full-backs.
This meant Ziyech very often dropped in deep as first receiver to spray long diagonal passes right to left. But on too many occasions, moves would slow or break down entirely after he released.
The same issue raised it’s head with anything short. Ziyech zipped cutting balls as he roamed from one side of the pitch to the other but again creation thereafter was in short supply.
He did have an opportunity to score himself, however, notably missing a glorious opportunity in the first half before forcing a stunning stop from the Iran keeper with an awkward volley in the second.
According to Opta, he attempted at least seven more passes than any other player in the opposition half during the first-half, completing 75 per cent of 20 attempted. A pointer to his enterprise, but as Morocco faded so too did his impact.
Releasing the ball – As noted above, Ziyech’s passing, particularly in the first-half, was near impeccable but it wasn’t just the weight of his release – it was the timing. His awareness to spring a team-mate free as they hit top speed while drawing in opposition defenders to free up space was intelligent and impressive.
Faded impact – The first half showed glimpses of his quality, but in the second he almost disappeared from view. At tournaments like this, you need stars like Ziyech to bend the game to their will and unfortunately for Morocco he dimmed to the background rather than spark to life.
3rd min CHANCE: Early corner which Younes Belhanda takes and he deceptively rolls the ball to Ziyech on the edge of the box who is in acres of space and with the whole goal to aim for, he completely mistimes the strike for an air shot.
20th min SHOT: Free-kick is clipped in and Achraf Hakimi climbs to head back towards his own goal. Ziyech is quick to react, but slices his first-time shot across goal with the ball pinballing around the area.
79th min CHANCE: Ziyech almost grabs the opener with a scintillating strike. Belhanda does well to take in a cross from the left, he lifts the ball into Ziyech’s path and he connects beautifully off his left foot from 20 yards only for Alireza Beiranvand to push the ball out for a corner with a great diving save.
Was the fulcrum of Morocco’s attack in the first half, but couldn’t quite break down a stubborn Iran defence before fading after the break.
He is a talent for sure and perhaps with better players around him a more positive display would be assured but otherwise, this was far from his best.
All statistics are compiled using whoscored.com
There’s plenty of talent bubbling in both camps, from Croatia’s mesmeric midfield to a Super Eagles side packed with pace and youth. Here, we look at three talking points ahead of the game.
CROATIA’S FALL FROM GRACE
Croatia have crashed and burned since burning bright on their brilliant debut 20 years ago.
Since stunning the world in France – eight short years after anything resembling a modern-day Croatia came to prominence (it would be 1993 until the nation was officially recognised by FIFA and UEFA) – it’s been a veritable smorgasbord of regret and disappointment for the fledgling nation.
Their World Cup record since 1998’s run to the semi-finals reads: 2002 group stage, 2006 group stage, 2010 failed to qualify, 2014 group stage.
Croatia have won only one of their last seven World Cup games (D2 L4), a 4-0 thrashing of Cameroon in Brazil, which ultimately proved anti-climactic as they failed to progress beyond the group yet again, their sole triumph.
Who can forget that magical run to third place in 1998, and the star-studded team that carried them there.
Having narrowly missed out on World Cup 1994 because their formation was ratified after the qualifiers started, they certainly made up for lost time on the international stage four years later.
Jamaica and Japan were swept aside, Croatia losing 1-0 to Argentina and qualifying second behind the South Americans. Romania were dispatched in the last 16 before a statement 3-0 demolition of 10-man Germany in the quarter-finals saw them reach the last four.
There the dream ended at the hands of eventual champions France, but they ended on a high as the Netherlands were beaten 2-1 in the third-place play-off.
It was always going to be hard to emulate that unfathomable high, but this generation has still underwhelmed.
They may not be the golden generation of Robert Prosinecki, Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban and Goran Vlaovic, but Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic should have mustered more in the intervening years.
In Russia, they have the chance to make amends. And with a majestic midfield supplementing an able attack, a deep run is a distinct possibility.
YOUTH V EXPERIENCE
On the opening day of the tournament, Nigeria’s squad will have an average age of 25 years and 336 days, the youngest of any team in the competition.
Croatia’s is not one of the oldest – their average age of 27.9 years places them 18th of the 32 teams – but they have a wealth of talent at their disposal, not to mention experience.
Captain Luka Modric has earned 106 caps for Valtreni, while veteran Lokomotiv Moscow centre-back Vedran Corluka is on the verge of reaching a century (99). Barcelona pivot Rakitic is also approaching 100 (92) as is Juventus striker Mandzukic (83).
Inter Milan forward Perisic (62) and Besiktas defender Domagoj Vida (59) are both on the way to 100, while AC Milan duo Ivan Strinic (43) and Nikola Kalinic (41), Real Madrid talent Mateo Kovacic (41), Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren (39), Monaco stopper Danijel Subasic, Fiorentina wideman Milan Badelj (both 38), lively Atletico Madrid full-back Sime Vrsaljko, Rijeka’s Filip Bradaric, Internazionale midfielder Marcelo Brozovic (all 35) and Hoffenheim attacker Andrej Kramaric (31) are all well on the way to the half-century mark.
All these caps piling up, on top of the masses of silverware the likes of Modric and Kovacic, Rakitic, Mandzukic and Vrsaljko are hoarding, means Croatia head into the tournament with a weight of confidence behind them.
On the other hand, Nigeria’s squad features 12 players aged 25 or under while six of Gernot Rohr’s 23 players have played less than 10 times for their country.
But what Rohr’s side lack in experience, they make up for in pace and sheer excitement.
A midfield anchored diligently by John Obi Mikel and Wilfred Ndidi allows the likes of Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi, Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho to flourish going forward, with the Super Eagles scoring a joint-high 11 goals in the final round of African qualifying.
They will have high hopes of making the knockout stages for a fourth time in six finals appearances.
DALIC MAKING A NAME FOR HIMSELF
Many casual football fans would have scratched their heads and asked ‘who?’ when Zlatko Dalic replaced Ante Cacic as Croatia coach in the middle of the qualifying campaign.
But to UAE football fans, Dalic is remembered as the man who cemented Al Ain’s reputation as the most successful club in the country’s history, providing Emirati poster boy Omar Abdulrahman with the means to make his meteoric rise to stardom.
Croatia’s Under-21 assistant coach from 2006-11, Dalic has largely walked a nomadic managerial path that meandered around the Middle East, where he has occupied several posts since 2010.
Saudi Arabia stints with Al Faisaly and then Al Hilal were fairly unspectacular, before Dalic rose to prominence in a glorious three-year term with UAE giants Al Ain from 2014-17.
He had the unenviable task of replacing the enigmatic and outspoken, but successful, Cosmin Olaroiu who won back-to-back Arabian Gulf League titles from 2011-13.
The AGL title was lifted again in 2014/15 under Dalic, the much celebrated President’s Cup in 2014 and the Arabian Gulf Super Cup in 2015 – while the Boss came perilously close to being crowned Asia’s best side for a second time in 2016 when they lost in the final of the AFC Champions League to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
And whatever reservations Croatian fans might have had when he was appointed to the country’s top job, they were allayed in just his first three games.
Coming in as their campaign was flagging, Dalic led the Croats to two wins and a draw which sealed their spot in Russia.
His bold ploy of pushing Modric further up the field also raised eyebrows but paid dividends.
There is, however, a concern with a lack of goals despite the attacking armory at his disposal. Croatia scored just 15 goals in qualifying, the lowest tally of all European teams to reach Russia.
Jose Gimenez broke Egyptian hearts when he powered in a header from a free-kick in the 89th-minute to win three points for Uruguay.
The last-gasp victory means Uruguay and Russia take control of the group after the hosts’ 5-0 mauling of Saudi Arabia in the opener.
Here’s a look at the tactical battle between managers Oscar Tabarez and Hector Cuper.
Goals – 1
Shots – 15
Possession – 58%
Tackles – 18
Dribbles – 13
Goals – 0
Shots – 8
Possession – 42%
Tackles – 22
Dribbles – 5
The wily old Uruguayan set his side up in their traditional 4-4-2 formation with the famed front two of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani leading the line. However, they didn’t show the kind of guile necessary to split open Egypt’s defence.
They eventually turned up the heat by overloading the flanks and getting more balls into the box and were rescued by a great header from Jose Gimenez.
Salah was named on the bench so there was no question of whether he would play up front or out wide. Marwan Mohsen led the line instead in a 4-2-3-1 system but was unable to hold up the ball when Egypt broke forward. He was dispossessed three times, as was another potential outlet in Trezeguet.
The Pharaohs tried to capitalise on the break but the execution of their forward passes was below par while Salah’s absence made for a blunt attack.
TACTICAL TALKING POINTS
Tabarez – More width
It hardly came as a surprise but Uruguay struggled to create much through the middle. The lack of innovation in possession was staggering and Rodrigo Bentancur was tipped to dictate play in midfield but the 20-year-old’s inexperience showed as he tended to hold onto possession for far too long.
As a result, Tabarez looked to concentrate play down the flanks in the second half. Carlos Sanchez in particular bombed down the right side with great impetus while Cristian Rodriguez’s introduction on the left wing provided more width as well. With play in the final third stretched, Uruguay began to create more chances though the winner came from a set-piece.
Cuper – Salah void
Egypt gave a good account of themselves as far as their set-up and approach goes at least. They restricted a Uruguay side which boasted a far superior attacking line. Cuper’s side was able to remain compact, soak up the pressure and had plenty of opportunities to break.
The problem though was that when they did counter, they didn’t have the pace and penetration of Salah to give their attacks purpose and direction. They largely wound up running down blind alleys and giving the ball away. If the Liverpool star was fit to play, one of those attacks could well have come to fruition.
Injected a bit of urgency into his side after half-time with Cavani and Suarez both being denied by El-Shenawy. Added more width to the attack after a very sluggish first half.
Rating – 6/10
Will be questioned for not playing Salah at some point. Fitness issues understandable but what’s the point of having him on the bench then? Must be credited for setting his side up well at least.
Rating – 5/10