World Cup 2018 Group B preview: Deceivingly tricky for Portugal, Spain

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ coverage of the 2018 World Cup. With the tournament approaching, and with 32 team previews available for consumption, it’s time to broaden our gaze and dissect the eight groups.

Call them group previews if you like. But they are more so discussions. There will be stage setting and narrative building. There will be questions to answer and pose. There will be analysis and opinions, plus predictions and more. Next up is Group B.

Group B team previews: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran

Group B tiers

Every World Cup group has its own structure; its own unique feel. But a simple numerical alignment, separating the four teams into anywhere between one and four tiers, goes a long way toward framing the discussion. And Group B is a clear-cut 2-2 … right?

On paper, it certainly is. On paper, there are two clear favorites, Spain and Portugal; and there are two outsiders, Morocco and Iran. But as you’ll learn over the next 1,000-some words, in reality, it is anything but clear-cut. It’s more of a 1-1-1-1, each team in its own tier. It’s also prime territory for the group stage’s biggest upset.

Strongest group of the eight?

It is so difficult to assign degrees of strength and weakness to World Cup groups, because there is no single, accepted definition of strong or weak. But if the metric is mean overall quality of the foursome, Group B tops the 2018 list. Because it has a title contender; it has a second big name; and it has far more depth than you think. As a collective, it scored 89 final-round qualifying goals and conceded just nine – and all four nations contributed to that stunning stat.

Group D, featuring Argentina, Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland, is widely consider the toughest group of the eight. But Spain is unquestionably better than Argentina. Portugal is probably a small step above Croatia. Morocco might not have Nigeria’s ceiling, but certainly has a higher floor. And Iran, when you toss narratives to the side, is very similar to Iceland.

Spain’s Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets have seen Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo before on the international stage. They’ll square off in 2018 World Cup Group B. (Getty)

The misguided favoritism of Group D over Group B pokes at the overarching theme of this preview: B is not a two-team group. Iran is a problem. Morocco is more than a problem. If things break right, it’s a quarterfinal threat. And the composition of the group’s fixture list is going to help.

The schedule puts a giant at risk

Before we pick apart the teams, let’s confront an underdiscussed fact: There is roughly a 60 percent chance that a recent European champion will go into its second group match three points behind a North African or Middle Eastern underdog. In other words, there is a 60 percent chance that, after 90 of 270 minutes, a favorite is no longer a favorite. As long as neither opening game – Portugal-Spain, Morocco-Iran – ends in a draw, that’ll be the case.

And that matters, because in a miniature three-game round robin, game state principles apply to the group as a whole. If Spain beats Portugal 2-0 and Morocco beats Iran 1-0, the Moroccans won’t just sit above the Euro 2016 champs in the table; they’ll essentially be playing with a lead from kickoff on Matchday 2. Portugal will know it must win, or else it’ll be left to hope for help, and to overturn a three-goal differential on the final day.

Let’s talk about Portugal

Why do we, the soccer punditry collective, think Portugal is good? I’m not saying there isn’t a valid answer. But I think it’s important to acknowledge what that answer is.

The answer is Euro 2016. It’s seven games, six of which were level after 90 minutes. Five of those six were against Hungary, Iceland, Austria, Poland and Croatia. The lone 90-minute victory was over Wales.

We think Portugal is good because of a small sample that, when viewed with even the smallest hint of nuance, isn’t all that impressive.

Let’s talk about small sample sizes

Every international soccer sample is small, of course. Portugal’s is no exception. That’s why anything can happen at major tournaments.

That’s also the point, though. To assess Portugal, or any team, we have to move beyond past results. They aren’t predictive. European champions this decade have, two summers later, finished bottom of their World Cup group in 2002; not qualified in 2006; won it all in 2010; and crashed out at the group stage in 2014. That’s not to say a Euro title doubles as a curse; it’s just to say we have to look deeper. And deeper, there are concerns on the western sliver of the Iberian peninsula; there is tremendous promise directly to the east.

Spain and Portugal are a class apart

Portugal is frighteningly unexceptional for a team considered by many to be a semifinal contender. And at the root of its mundanity is a mid-30s center back pairing that requires significant protection.

Whichever two of Pepe (35), Bruno Alves (36) and Jose Fonte (34) start, they can’t hang in an up-tempo, open game. They can’t play a high line. So manager Fernando Santos, despite having some decent attacking midfield talent at his disposal, doesn’t really make use of it. Because he knows he can’t have the best of both worlds. Either he risks goal floods, like his predecessor did at the 2014 World Cup; or he opts for control, like he did at the Euros, and risks stemming his own side’s attacking flow. He’ll surely do the latter, because it worked two years ago. But, as previously discussed, that doesn’t mean it’ll work again.

Spanish expectations, on the other hand, are victims of the Portuguese corollary. They are diminished ever so slightly, a notch below Germany’s or Brazil’s, because of three games: two of them four summers ago, the third two summers ago. When we look beyond those games, we see the most resplendent squad in Russia. We see the best goalkeeper in the world, the best back four or any international or club side, and the best ball-playing midfield. There’s more talent in Spain’s starting 11 than all but one other.

Of course, talent doesn’t automatically triumph. Perhaps that’s the argument for Portugal. But Spain hasn’t lost under Julen Lopetegui. There’s absolutely no applicable evidence – perhaps aside from a few troubling signs of Sergio Busquets decline – that this team has holes.

IAGO. ASPAS. FOR. GOLDEN. BOOT.

*clears throat*

Iago Aspas is going to win the Golden Boot. Please, allow me to explain. Don’t worry, the case is pretty simple. It goes as follows …

Spain could almost field an entire starting 11 of world-class playmakers. Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Isco, Thiago, Koke … the list goes on. Its starting striker spot, meanwhile, is there for the taking. Whoever claims it should be presented with loads of high-percentage shots. And Aspas, who was downright awesome this past season for Celta Vigo, should claim it. He’s the best goalscorer of the three options – Diego Costa and Rodrigo the others. More importantly, and more definitively, he suits La Furia Roja‘s style better than the other two. He’s a pest, capable of playin in transition but also finding penalty-box crevices. Costa provides the Plan B. Aspas jells with Plan A, which offers Spain its best shot at glory. So, even if he has to come off the bench a few times …

#IagoAspas4GoldenBoot.

What about Cristiano?

Oh, yeah. Him. He’s pretty good. OK, he’s probably the second-best to ever play the sport. And at age 33, he’s still brilliant.

But he’s also slowly becoming increasingly reliant on teammates to create chances for him. His club teammates do that. His international teammates have done it against inferior competition. But Santos’ system stifles most creativity against respectable foes. Ronaldo will be the focal point of everything Portugal does. But there’s a real chance he could underwhelm by no fault of his own.

Why Morocco is dangerous

For all the cautionary talk on Portugal, Ronny’s boys are still the second-most talented team here. Morocco, though, is the second-most intriguing, and might just be the second-most adventurous.

The upset-pick-for-the-sake-of-an-upset-pick reasoning here is that the Atlas Lions didn’t concede throughout the final round of qualifying. The real reasoning is that they didn’t concede because they more or less bossed all six games by executing a gameplan that can’t really be described as defensive or cautious. They can play at various tempos, with a lot of possession or without it. They can adjust their pressing line of confrontation based on opponent. They have Hakim Ziyech, who isn’t quite on a Bernardo Silva level, but will have more freedom than his Portuguese equivalent. They have the best non-Spanish defender in the group, Juventus’ Medhi Benatia, and a better overall crop of defenders than Portugal.

They are not a better team than Portugal. They are not favored to escape from the group. But given the circumstances and matchups, Morocco has a much better chance to advance than you probably thought it did when the group was drawn back on Dec. 1.

Why Iran is (slightly less) dangerous

Remember that Iran team that drew Nigeria and very nearly held Argentina at bay in 2014? The 2018 edition of Team Melli is dangerous because its similar – and because, theoretically, it now has a bit of an attacking dimension as well.

Squads like Iran’s – with a defensive identity, but with its two best players at the top of the pitch – are always intriguing. Carlos Queiroz’s rigid, cautious system applies glue to fissures at the back. Going forward, 24-year-old Alireza Jahanbakhsh and 23-year-old Sardar Azmoun theoretically provide punch.

But they, and all other Iranian players, combined for just 10 goals in 10 final-round qualifiers against the likes of Qatar, China, Uzbekistan and Syria. They’ll probably need multiple 1-0 wins to escape from the group. So they’re not dangerous as a knockout-round threat. They are, though, capable of derailing Spain’s or Portugal’s tournament.

Group B TV schedule

All kickoff times ET

Friday, June 15
Morocco vs. Iran, 11 a.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
Portugal vs. Spain, 2 p.m. (Fox, Telemundo)

Wednesday, June 20
Portugal vs. Morocco, 8 a.m. (Fox Sports 1, Telemundo)
Iran vs. Spain, 2 p.m. (Fox, Telemundo)

Monday, June 25
Iran vs. Portugal, 2 p.m. (Fox/FS1, Telemundo/Universo)
Spain vs. Morocco, 2 p.m. (Fox/FS1, Telemundo/Universo)

Group B predictions

Ryan Bailey: Spain (1), Portugal (2)
Henry Bushnell: Spain (1), Morocco (2)
Joey Gulino: Spain (1), Portugal (2)
Doug McIntyre: Spain (1), Portugal (2)
Leander Schaerlaeckens: Spain (1), Morocco (2)

More 2018 World Cup group previews

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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