Group B Preview: Spain still has all the makings of a championship team

Group B might be the toughest group at the 2018 World Cup. Portugal is the reigning European champion, but the team to beat is Spain, which was a second-tier seed but enters the tournament with a 20-game unbeaten streak. But one or both teams might not make it out of the group.

Frenchman Herve Renard has perhaps the best African team at the World Cup in Morocco with a core of players born and raised in Europe. Iran was the first Asian team to clinch a berth in the finals. Team Melli might not be flashy but it is very organized.


Before Tuesday, you could have made a strong case that Spain is the team to beat at the World Cup. La Roja has the perfect blend of experience -- Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and David Silva remain from the World Cup championship team of eight years -- and new talent. Except for center forward, Spain has a player at every position who would rank among the five best players at the World Cup at their position.

But after Wednesday's shock firing of Julen Lopetegui a day after he announced he'd take the Real Madrid job after the World Cup, all bets are off. Spain's players wanted Lopetegui to stay through the World Cup -- La Roja did not lose a game with him in charge -- but Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales, who felt betrayed by Lopetegui's decision taken without his knowledge, refused to listen.

Our picks: 1. Spain. 2. Portugal. 3. Morocco. 4. Iran.

Group B Schedule
June 15 Morocco vs. Iran, St. Petersburg (11 am ET, Fox, Telemundo)
June 15 Portugal vs. Spain, Sochi (2 pm ET, Fox, Telemundo)
June 20 Portugal vs. Morocco, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow (8 am ET, FS1, Telemundo)
June 20 Iran vs. Spain, Kazan (2 pm ET, Fox, Telemundo)
June 25 Iran vs. Portugal, Saransk (2 pm ET, *Fox, Telemundo)
June 25 Spain vs. Morocco, Kaliningrad (2 pm ET, *FS1, Universo)
*Network assignment subject to change.

World Cup: Complete Rosters

The Entertainers
This will be the fourth and surely last World Cup for Cristiano Ronaldo, who has a modest record of three goals in 13 World Cup games. Health was an issue four years ago when Portugal finished behind the USA and failed to make the knockout stage in Brazil. The wear and tear of another long season with Real Madrid has some worried that he has little left for the World Cup. ... Under Lopetegui, Isco emerged as the player through which much of the Spanish attack flows. We'll know soon enough what his role will be under Lopetegui's successor, Fernando Hierro ... Iran has two players coming off excellent club seasons in Europe: midfielder Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens) and forward Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ).

Breakout Player
Hakim Ziyech plays for Ajax in the Netherlands, where he represented its national teams at the U-19, U-20 and U-21 levels, but he chose to play for Morocco at the senior level, making the switch in 2015. He's a small, left-footed player who has been described as Morocco's Messi. He is Morocco's most dangerous player with eight goals in 15 matches for the Lions of Atlas.

U.S. Connection
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz coached the MetroStars for the second half of their MLS debut season in 1996 and is the author of the Project 2010, aka the Q-Report, commissioned by U.S. Soccer.

Spain was the fifth World Cup champion not to make it out of the group stage in its title defense when it finished third in its group behind the Netherlands and Chile in Brazil four years ago. The last two -- Brazil (1966) and France (2002) -- won the World Cup and finished second, respectively, four years after that.
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