It seems SPAIN go into the tournament without a coach. As the football world tries to make sense of the sacking of Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the World Cup, it seems egos of the highest order are playing their cards at the Spanish Football Federation. It is near impossible to predict the impact on the playing group, but if there is one team who could go on and win the competition after this, it’s the La Furia Roja (The Red Fury). After uncharacteristically crashing out at the group stages in Brazil, then failing to make it past the quarter finals in France 2016, the Spanish won all but one of their qualifying games (a 1-1 draw in Turin against Italy was the only blemish). Real Madrid duo Isco and Marco Asensio are the new kids on the block in a more aggressive 4-3-3, revitalising an ageing group who had enjoyed over a decade of success prior to Brazil 2014. Yet I still think the mercurial David Silva will be the key to the trophy when the knockout games begin. European Champions PORTUGAL will clash toe-to-toe with their geographical neighbours in the opening round of games in Sochi. The match of the round no doubt, the result could set the tone for who holds the real power on the Iberian Peninsula. Cristiano Ronaldo is at the very peak of his footballing career, and the World Cup is now or never. A supporting cast of next generation superstars eager to make Russia 2018 their breakout tournament stands A Seleção das Quinas in good stead: Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva, AC Milan’s André Silva, and Valencia’s striking sensation Gonçalo Guedes make the Portuguese a real favourite to lift the trophy in Russia. Fernando Santos commands great respect among the playing group that still boasts stalwarts Bruno Alves, José Fonte, João Moutinho, and oh that idiot Pepe! MOROCCO feature in their first World Cup since 1998 (Mustapha Hadji anyone?!), and have excelled under the guidance of French coach Hervé Renard. Expertly led at the back by Juventus defender Medhi Benatia, the grzamn n Atlasi (Atlas Lions) also boast the title of the most unknown quantity at the tournament. RS Berkane forward Ayoub El Kaabi has 11 goals in only 10 international matches but little is known of him outside his home country. Ajax’s young Hakim Ziyech has taken the Dutch league by storm with 46 goals in 3 seasons from midfield, he is certainly one to watch. Real Madrid gave first team experience to 19 year old Achraf Hakimi this season and he will start at right back. There is much to like about this exciting Moroccan team who could go one better than the 1998 team and reach the second round. IRAN make up Group B and have continued their rudderless development under the clumsy eye of ex-Manchester United assistant Carlos Queiroz. An uninspiring qualifying campaign and recent defeats to both Tunisia and Turkey do not bode well. Olympiacos forward Karim Ansarifard has emerged as a striker who can lead the line well, scoring 18 goals in 27 appearances for his club this season. Captain Masoud Shojaei is the most accomplished player in the side yet the defence looks unsettled and there are questions about the goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand, who has looked vulnerable in his 22 caps. Defeat against Morocco in their opening game in Saint Petersburg and it could get very messy indeed.
Players to watch: Marco Asensio & Davis Silva (SPA), Bernardo Silva & Gonçalo Guedes (POR), Hakim Ziyech & Achraf Hakimi (MOR), Karim Ansarifard & Saeid Ezatolahi (IRA)
Fun fact: Moroccan coach Renard famously upset the odds leading Zambia to glory in the 2012 African Cup of Nations. He returned to win the tournament again in 2015, this time with the Cote d’Ivoire, whom Zambia beat on penalties to win in 2012. The first man to coach two teams to win the trophy, he danced topless around the stadium in the aftermath of the final in 2015. Legend!