Portugal v Spain, Friday 15th June, 19:00 BST
Now we’re talking. Two world heavyweights and fierce local rivals, the World Cup begins here with this clash of Iberian tribes. Portugal are the reigning European Champions. With that noted, it seems redundant to point out that they are a good tournament team but it’s worth repeating simply because this is an uncommon and uncommonly helpful trait for an international team to have. With relatively little time to train together at the end of long domestic seasons, continuity and an implicit understanding of systems & roles go a long way in tournament play. Also, Ronaldo.
Spain have been one of the dominant teams in international football for over a decade now, winning the World Cup in 2010 and becoming European Champions either side of that in 2008 and 2012. A tragedy of a footballing sort befell them in the 2014 World Cup, however, as they crashed out in the Group Stage. They lost their second round match against a game but relatively limited Italy side at Euro 2016 in France but they haven’t lost since. They put some serious hurt on a Messi-less and effectively defence-less Argentina (Otamendi and Rojo as their centre-back pairing will see Argentina win nothing) in a 6-1 trouncing in March. Spain are a serious threat to all.
The bookmakers have looked closely at both teams and roundly decreed that neither being European Champions nor having Ronaldo in their ranks is enough for Portugal to topple this Spain side. The larger of the peninsular neighbours are just under evens in most books but if you think that CR7, in conjunction with Ricardo Quaresma and Bernardo Silva, have the wherewithal to grab a victory for Portugal, then take the 15/4 here.
Morocco Can Edge Out Iran in Battle of Minnows
Morocco v Iran, Friday 15th June, 16:00 BST
Morocco are likely to be one of the teams that fly under the radar of most people’s awareness and chances are that they might exit in much the same manner. But just because they are a minnow, it does not mean that they are utterly bereft of hope. In their previous 10 matches (five World Cup Qualifiers and five friendlies), they have a record of W7 D2 L1 with a notable victory over Serbia coming in March of this year. Steering this impressive run of form is the most successful modern international manager you’ve never heard of, Hervé Renard. With the unique claim of being the only coach to have won the African Cup of Nations with two different countries, the dashing and magnetic Renard is guaranteed to catch the attention even if the Lions of the Atlas don’t.
Speaking of minnows, Iran might too be assumed to fall into that category. Perhaps, though, that is a little unfair. After all, they are ranked 37th in the world (four ahead of Morocco in 41st) and are on fair run coming into this competition with a record from 10 games of W6 D2 L2. Those two losses come from five games played this year, however, including their last friendly, and the quality of opposition overall has been somewhat suspect. Do Morocco fall into that category of quality?
The market thinks not and favours Morocco to ultimately prevail. That’s where the smart money should go, let FIFA rankings be damned.