…Iran ready to face off FIFA World Cup rivals…
…Morocco is enjoying a revival…
…Spain is back on the rise…
…Portugal warms up for World Cup…

IRAN

Current FIFA Ranking: 37
Previous World Cup appearances: 4 – 1978, 1998, 2006, 2014
Best World Cup result: Group Stage
Group fixtures: June 15 vs Morocco, June 20 vs Spain, June 25 vs Portugal
Captain: Ashkan Dejagah
Star Player: Sardar Azmoun
Head coach: Carlos Queiroz
Preferred Formation: 1-4-5-1

Qualification Route:
Iran became the second team to qualify for World Cup, after Brazil, in the CAF Third Round, as they beat Uzbekistan 2-0 with goals from Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi at the Azadi Stadium.

Past Performances:
Iran is one of the most successful national teams in Asia with three Asian Cup championships (1968, 1972, and 1976). Iran has qualified for the World Cup five times (1978, 1998, 2006, 2014, and 2018) but has never advanced past the group stage. Iran’s only win in the World Cup has been a 2–1 victory against the United States in 1998.

Iran’s success was based upon their defensive excellence.

Iran do not lack attacking talent, though. Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi combined for 19 goals over the course of the entire qualification campaign, while winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh is coming off the back of the most prolific season of his Eredivisie career.

However, nothing less than victory in their tournament opener against Morocco will suffice if Team Melli are to reach the knockout stage for the first time in their history.

The Squad:
Goalkeepers: Alireza Beiranvand, Rashid Mazaheri, Amir Abedzadeh
Defenders: Ramin Rezaeian, Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh, Morteza Pouraliganji, Pejman Montazeri, Seyed Majid Hosseini, Milad Mohammadi, Roozbeh Cheshmi
Midfielders: Saeid Ezatolahi, Masoud Shojaei, Saman Ghoddos, Mehdi Torabi, Ashkan Dejagah, Omid Ebrahimi, Ehsan Hajsafi, Vahid Amiri
Forwards: Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Karim Ansarifard, Mahdi Taremi, Sardar Azmoun, Reza Ghoochannejhad

MOROCCO

Current FIFA Ranking: 41
Previous World Cup appearances: 4 – 1970, 1986, 1994, 1998
Best World Cup result: Last 16 – 1986
Group fixtures: June 15 vs Iran, June 20 vs Portugal, June 25 vs Spain
Captain: Medhi Benatia
Star Player: Hakim Ziyech
Head coach: Herve Renard
Preferred Formation: 4-2-3-1

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Qualification Route:
Goals from defenders Nabil Dirar and Medhi Benatia handed Morocco a 2-0 away win over the Ivory Coast in their last World Cup qualifier and booked a return to the finals for the first time in two decades. Morocco completed the CAF qualifcation campaign without conceding a goal, finishing on 12 points, four ahead of the Ivorians. Gabon had seven and bottom-placed Mali, five.

Past Performances:
As the winners of the African Nations Cup in 1976, they were the first African team to win a group at the World Cup, which they did in 1986, finishing ahead of Portugal, Poland, and England. They were also the first African team to make it to the second round, barely losing to eventual runners-up West Germany, 1–0 in 1986. They also came within two minutes of moving out of the group stage of the 1998 World Cup, Kjetil Rekdal’s late winning goal for Norway against Brazil, eliminating them.

After a 20-year absence, Morocco is ready to make a strong return to the game’s grandest stage.

The Squad:
Goalkeepers: Mounir El Kajoui, Yassine Bounou, Ahmad Reda Tagnaouti
Defenders: Mehdi Benatia, Romain Saiss, Manuel Da Costa, Badr Benoun, Nabil Dirar, Achraf Hakimi, Hamza Mendyl
Midfielders: M’bark Boussoufa, Karim El Ahmadi, Youssef Ait Bennasser, Sofyan Amrabat, Younes Belhanda, Faycal Fajr, Amine Harit
Forwards: Khalid Boutaib, Aziz Bouhaddouz, Ayoub El Kaabi, Nordin Amrabat, Mehdi Carcela, Hakim Ziyech

SPAIN

Current FIFA Ranking: 10
Previous World Cup appearances: 14 – 1934, 1950, 1962, 1966, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014
Best World Cup result: Winners – 2010
Group fixtures: June 15 vs Portugal, June 20 vs Iran, June 25 vs Morocco
Captain: Sergio Ramos
Star Players: Sergio Ramos, David de Gea, David Silva, Isco, Ascencia, Sergio Ramos.
Head coach: Julen Lopetegui
Preferred formation: 4-2-3-1

Qualification Route:
During the qualifying rounds, they haven’t lost a single game. They kicked off their qualifying campaign by thrashing Liechtenstein eight goals to nil before dropping points after a 1-1 draw with Italy. They went back to their winning ways away from home as they defeated Albania two goals to nil. They ended their qualfying campaign on a high note after a three-nil win over Albania and a one-nil win over Israel.

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Past Performances:
Spain is one of only eight countries ever to have won the FIFA World Cup, which it did at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the first time the team had reached the final. The team is one of the most present at the World Cup finals with 14 appearances out of the 20 tournaments. Spain reached fourth-place in 1950, and has reached the quarter-finals four times. The Spanish team has also won three UEFA European Football Championships, in 1964, 2008 and 2012 and the Olympic football tournament in 1992.

Spain may have disappointed at their last two major tournaments but they will arrive in Russia as one of the favourites to win the World Cup.

The Squad:
Goalkeepers: David de Gea, Pepe Reina, Kepa Arrizabalaga
Defenders: Dani Carvajal, Alvaro Odriozola, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Nacho, Cesar Azpilicueta, Jordi Alba, Nacho Monreal
Midfielders: Sergio Busquets, Saul Niquez, Koke, Thiago Alcantara, Andres Iniesta, David Silva
Forwards: Isco, Marcio Asensio, Lucas Vazquez, Iago Aspas, Rodrigo, Diego Costa

PORTUGAL

Current FIFA Ranking: 4
Previous World Cup appearances: 6 – 1966, 1986, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014
Best World Cup result: Third place – 1966
Group fixtures: June 15 vs Spain, June 20 vs Morocco, June 25 vs Iran
Captain: Cristiano Ronaldo
Star Player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Head coach: Fernando Santos
Preferred formation: 4-4-2

Qualification Route:
The 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification UEFA Group B was one of the nine UEFA groups for 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification. The group consisted of six teams: Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia, and Andorra.

European champions Portugal booked their spot in Russia after narrowly finishing top of Europe’s Group B on goal difference, edging out Switzerland on the final day to avoid the play-offs.

Past Performances:
Portugal have appeared in the finals of the FIFA World Cup on six occasions, the first being in 1966, where they reached the semi final. The next two times Portugal qualified for the World Cup finals were in 1986 and 2002, going out in the first round both times. Although Portugal finished first in the qualifying round for the 2006 World Cup, they faced Germany in the third place play-off match in a 3–1 defeat. In 2010, they came second in the qualifying round, but ended with a loss to eventual champions, Spain in the round of 16, 1–0. However, in 2014, the team was eliminated due to inferior goal difference to the Americans.

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Portugal displayed admirable defensive discipline and remarkable resilience to defeat France in the final of Euro 2016 after the loss of their captain and talisman Cristiano Ronaldo to an early injury.

Indeed, the supposed next generation of stars (Andre Silva, Andre Gomes and Renato Sanches, the latter who is left out of the squad) have struggled terribly at club level, while drawing Spain, means Portugal are likely to be left fighting for second place in Group B.

However, as the Seleccao showed in France two years ago, they are capable of springing a surprise, while a fully-fit Ronaldo makes anything possible.

The Squad:
Goalkeepers: Anthony Lopes, Beto, Rui Patricio
Defenders: Bruno Alves, Cedric Soares, Jose Fonte, Mario Rui, Pepe, Raphael Guerreiro, Ricardo Pereira, Ruben Dias
Midfielders: Adrien Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Mario, Joao Moutinho, Manuel Fernandes, William Carvalho
Forwards: Andre Silva, Bernardo Silva, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gelson Martins, Goncalo Guedes, Ricardo Quaresma