Just two and a half months separate us from the start of the World Cup. Portugal’s friendly matches sparked much debate about the current state of the Seleção and who should make the plane to Russia. But what about Portugal’s Group B opponents?
With the proviso that two friendlies are not ideal material to draw definitive conclusions, PortuGOAL tasked football analyst Tiago Estêvão to examine what the internationals played this past week told us about Spain, Morocco and Iran.
There were no major surprises in the Spanish call-up by former FC Porto boss Julen Lopetegui. Midfielders Parejo and Rodri, from Valencia and Villarreal respectively, got their first call-ups in the midst of incredibly consistent seasons at club level. I wouldn’t be overly surprised if either got a spot in the plane to Russia but neither seem to be close to a starting spot.
Marcos Alonso, an important starter for Chelsea for almost two seasons, got his debut for the national team but will only be competing for the second Left-Back spot in the squad since Jordi Alba is a guaranteed starter in Russia. Up top, Morata – who was their top scorer at Euro 2016 and in the World Cup qualifiers – has been falling out of favour at Chelsea, so Diego Costa, with his fire rekindled since moving back to Atletico in January, replaced him.
Spain faced two very strong teams during this international break and did great – looking dominant both in a 1-1 draw versus Germany and in their 6-1 destruction of a Messi-less Argentina. Although Busquets missed out through injury – and he'll be a key part of the team come the summer – Lopetegui used a consistent team that gives us a clear idea of how they’ll be shaping up in Russia. Their backline, with players equally divided between Real Madrid and Barcelona, even started both matches during this international break.
From midfield onwards, fluidity will reign with what seem like endless options. They won’t really use classic wingers, instead playing a couple of smart movers who are great at combining play, while getting their width from their full-backs. We all know Spain’s classic style of play and under Lopetegui they have renewed their team under the same convections. Usual suspects like Iniesta or David Silva are now accompanied by a younger generation with the likes of Isco and Asensio, on top of a – hopefully for the sake of football – fit Thiago Alcantara. Between Diego Costa and ex-Benfica forward Rodrigo they have two very different options to lead the line as well.
They’re clearly one of the candidates to win the tournament but, weirdly enough, they’re the team I’m less nervous about Portugal facing. The majority of our problems over the last two years are related to our structure in possession and, since Spain won’t let us take over that aspect of the game, we might be okay to contend for a result. Unlike what Argentina did against them, we won’t even try to play through their press: likely opting for a counter-attacking, more longer-ball fuelled game instead. While it’s tough to find weaknesses in their game, they were exposed here and there on the counter and in set-pieces. If we can take advantage of space in behind, which we tend to, and if a couple of set-piece routines are set-up over the preparation period – something I think would be tremendously important for the tournament – we could surprise many in the opening fixture.
Herve Renard didn’t bring many surprises in his call-up for this national team break, as Morocco faced Serbia and Uzbekistan. The major news was Ayoub El Kaabi, a striker who plays in Morocco for RS Berkane, getting his first call-up and even scoring in the second game, but he is still very unlikely to play a major role in Russia. Zakaria Labyad, who had a disappointing period with Sporting CP, got his first call-up since 2015, and his sixth cap. The attacking midfielder is having an amazing season with Utrecht in the Netherlands which might give him access to a spot on the plane and a role as an impactful substitute.
Renard’s men ended up beating Serbia 2-1 and Uzbekistan 2-0. While the latter result could be regarded as slightly less impressive, beating a Serbia side that qualified at the top of their qualifying group and will be playing at the World Cup this summer is notable. It’s worth mentioning that the starting line-up that played against Serbia is a lot closer to what I’m expecting in June; they then proceeded to rotate a bit more against Uzbekistan.
Although I don’t expect them to try and take the game to Portugal, their team is full of technical players capable of quickly creating chances upon recovering possession. Although Portugal tends to have issues breaking teams down, they’re not really used to being without possession for long and aren’t as organized without the ball as Iran, for example. Instead, our defensive transition will be the key for the game against Morocco. Due to how quick and technically capable they will punish Portugal if we don’t transition properly after losing the ball.
Their main team is also pretty set for Russia. From the midfield forward, there are plenty of well-known names playing throughout Europe, but Hakim Ziyech gets the nod as the star. Nothing short of outstanding for Ajax over the past two seasons, he will be roaming and coordinating the team’s offensive moves, combining the ability to create chances from pretty much anything, with the capacity to also finish some of his team’s moves.
Up top, Khalid Boutaib deserves a mention due to simultaneously being key for Morocco while being probably the most unknown outfielder in their usual line-up. The experienced 30-year-old striker has scored 12 goals for a mid-table side in Turkey this season, after scoring 20 in the second French tier in 2016/17. He is not just a good finisher, he is threatening in the air – arguably the section of the game that our backline is most comfortable with, but still worth noting.
Their backline is a bit mix-and-match, though. Saiss, usually Ruben Neves’s midfield partner at Wolves, is a starter at centre-back (ahead of Portuguese youth international Manuel da Costa), Dirar, who usually plays as more of a winger at club level, slots in at right-back and young Real Madrid right-back Achraf Hakimi is switched to the left side. Juventus’ Benatia is the solid presence that the rest of the backline is built around. And while having full-backs capable of providing offensive support, and Saiss aiding build-up from deep is great, positionally it can be exploited.
Morocco finished the last qualifying group stage without a single goal conceded. But the only games in that period in which they kept less of the ball were against Ivory Coast, a country whose attack is the complete opposite from Portugal’s: lots of quick players and swift movement, as opposed to Portugal’s crossing-heavy approach. Morocco might have more trouble with the latter simply because they haven’t been exposed to it as often at all.
Carlos Queiroz’s Iran team faced both Tunisia and Algeria during this international pause, in what seems to be a preparation focused heavily on their opening fixture against the other northern African side: Morocco. Dejagah, who played an important part in the qualifying campaign, is out injured and recently underwent surgery. Not only did he miss these friendlies, but he could possibly be out of the tournament in the summer. The call-up included Marítimo goalkeeper Abedzadeh, who has recently won the starting spot in Madeira but didn’t get any minutes during this stint with the national side.
They ended up with a 1-0 defeat to Tunisia, who will be in Russia this summer, and a 2-1 over Algeria who will not. Carlos Queiroz rotated the line-up a lot from midfield onwards from one game to the other but kept the back-line relatively stable.
Iran finished top of their qualifying group in Asia by a whopping 7 points, conceding only twice in a group that had South Korea, against whom they drew 0-0 and won 1-0. The very well-organized team that we saw in Brazil four years ago is now complimented with a couple of attacking talents that can put a dent in any opponent, which makes this Iran a real threat.
Sardar Azmoun finished as the team’s top scorer in the qualifiers – on top of getting a beautiful headed goal against Algeria in this friendly – and although he hasn’t been having the best season at club level, is still an exciting young finisher to look out for. Arguably just as threatening is Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who is having his second great season in a row with AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands. Usually playing from the right side, he is a threat when it comes to both goalscoring and chance creation. The Portuguese defence isn’t particularly quick at all so it’s in our best interest to avoid putting ourselves in defensive 1v1s.
Portugal have tended to blindly resort to an endless number of crosses against any side that sits back and doesn’t allow us much space to build through, and it’ll likely be even worse against a properly organized side that will want to force Portugal to do exactly that. It’ll be important to establish a better structure in possession purely so we aren’t forced to resort to crosses, instead being able to combine play and let the individual quality that we have shine through.
Against Algeria, the moments in which they were most in trouble were in situations where the Algerians had their players making movements inwards from wide to then find spaces between the Iranian defensive lines, either to dribble or to pass the ball through. The involvement from our “wingers” will be key for June’s World Cup fixture.
By Tiago Estêvão