These previews will be as free from well-trodden ‘narratives’ as is possible. There are a plethora of other ones out there – some well-informed, some… not so much. I have opted for brevity over bells and whistles, but I still think they provide a fresh take on the most highly anticipated tournament.
Group A can be found here.
Head Coach: Fernando Santos
Odds to Win: 22-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: In spite of the obvious array of attacking talent, Santos places emphasis firmly on defence first. The centre back pairing (perm two from three) are vastly experienced, extremely aggressive and slower than probably any others in the tournament. Raphael Guerreiro is a very pacey, offensive-minded full-back. Like his compatriot on the opposite flank, he will stand up high cross after high cross from deep to look for the predatory Cristiano Ronaldo. The superstar is the focal point of the side but he will ably assisted by Bernardo Silva and the emergence of Gonçalo Guedes, who will offer support to Ronaldo and feed balls into him in a variety of ways.
Prediction: I have a feeling they will not progress from this group, especially if they fail to beat Morocco. For all the talent at Santos’ disposal, the defence is a big worry, especially if the marauding full-backs are caught high up the pitch and any forward with pace runs in behind the lumbering centre backs on the break. Their setup is more suited when they’re not the favourites to win a match and whilst on paper, they’d fancy their chances in two of the three ties, it remains to be seen whether they can change tack whilst simultaneously hiding their frailties.
Head Coach: Julen Lopetegui
Odds to Win: 11-2
Tactics & Players to Watch: With the wide forwards likely to tuck inside, much of the width will instead come from the full-backs, who will have plenty of targets to aim for. Isco is an excellent shout for Golden Boot winner despite not being an out-and-out striker. With Diego Costa charged with doing the dirty work and drawing defenders (and fouls), there is ample opportunity for Spain to dominate possession in every group game and play between intricate passes in between the lines. Should Costa not prove effective or be on a yellow card, Iago Aspas could coax the backline to step forward by operating in a false nine role, giving his teammates room to manoeuvre in the half spaces.
Prediction: It’s hard to pick fault with their roster. Yes, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué are not quite as nimble as they once were, but they still cover ground more than capably. The frustrations, as ever, will rear their heads if they find an opposing side hard to break down. That’s a distinct possibility in this group, with two of the three sides they face likely to form an ultra-defensive posture. They should overcome those obstacles and book passage to at least the quarter finals. They have the potential to win it but I just see them falling ever-so-slightly short.
Head Coach: Hervé Renard
Odds to Win: 500-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: The second most attack-minded side in the group, Morocco will surge forward at pace whenever they have successfully soaked up the pressure. Romain Saïss has wowed Wolves fans with his class at the back and alongside Juventus stalwart and national team captain, Mehdi Banatia, they are like two colossi. The full-backs are speedy and are well-screened by the holding midfield pair. Hakim Ziyech will explode onto the biggest stage of all, creating chances for his side with his dribbling, trickery and ability to cut inside.
Prediction: They will surprise some pundits, who look at the group and cannot entertain any other notion than an Iberian one-two. Defeat IR Iran and avoid defeat to Portugal and that will probably be sufficient to take them into the knockout rounds. They are a big threat going forward and solid at the back, as evidenced by conceding just one during qualification. Yes, the standards are higher, but write them off at your peril.
Head Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Odds to Win: 750-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: Defensively organised, Queiroz’ charges try to win the ball back aggressively in the mid-block, congesting the midfield area by adopting a narrow stance in an effort to force their opponents to look for other avenues. The central midfielders will play long balls into the channels for the wingers to chase. Alireza Jahanbakhsh is adept with both feet and at taking on his marker and beating them on the dribble. He will look for the top goalscorer in their qualification, Sardar Azmoun, with a variety of crosses. The furthest midfielder from that flank will step up to give IR Iran at least three bodies in the area whenever possible.
Prediction: They will need all their defensive qualities to resist every side they will face in the group. They are outsiders to qualify but, just like with Morocco, a win in that game will stand them in good stead to gain a point from one of their two remaining fixtures. I don’t think they’ll manage that, nor do I believe they’ll roll over. Much will rely on their Plan A coming off. Queiroz has several tricks up his sleeve and will keep his opposite numbers guessing with his lineup and tactics. Whether that will be enough is a different matter entirely in a tough group.