A World Cup preview, with predictions for Group B, which features Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Iran and opens play on Friday with Morocco vs. Iran and Portugal vs. Spain.
Predicted order of finish: Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Iran
There is no greater divide between the perceived top two and bottom two teams than right here. Spain, Portugal ... and who else? With all due respect to Morocco and Iran, the Iberian titans will enter the competition as heavy favorites to secure passage to the next round. The only lingering question, it seems, is the order in which they'll traverse.
Both sides have the opportunity to set the terms by winning the showdown in Sochi on the second day of the tournament. Just as likely, though, they'll end up splitting points and, by the end of group play, deciding first place through the goal differential tiebreaker.
Spain roared through a soft qualifying group with nine victories, a draw and a plus-33 scoring differential in 10 matches, the only blemish coming at Italy. Four players scored five goals apiece. In March, the world took notice of Spain's growing capacity this summer by blasting Argentina, 6-1.
After clashing in La Liga, a dozen players from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid will make up more than half the squad. Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, David Silva, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba will attempt to raise one more major trophy before time catches up to them. David de Gea (Manchester United) is among the sport's best goalkeepers.
The Spaniards are familiar with Portugal's best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, who has powered Real Madrid to four of the past five Champions League titles. In the middle of club supremacy, Ronaldo two summers ago also helped Portugal win its first European championship -- an international breakthrough that could carry over to the World Cup. For that to occur, Ronaldo will need help from Euro heroes such as Pepe, Rui Patricio and Raphael Guerreiro.
Morocco qualified for the first time in 20 years, beating out group favorite Ivory Coast. With players spread throughout European leagues, including Juventus defender Medhi Benatia, the Atlas Lions are primed to steal points.
In four prior appearances, the Iranians never got past the first round and earned only one victory (against the United States in 1998). Top scorer Sardar Azmoun plays in the Russian league for Kazan, whose stadium will stage Iran's second match, against Spain.
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