The first match in Group B at the 2018 World Cup sees the two group underdogs, Morocco and Iran, face each other in St Petersburg.
Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation
Key Stat: Morocco have not lost a match for more than 12 months - their 18-match unbeaten run in all competitions stretches back to June 2017.
Expert Verdict: Morocco and Iran both qualified for the 2018 World Cup thanks to impressive defensive records, and both will need their defences to shine if they are to have any chance of usurping Spain and Portugal in Group B. First, however, they meet each other and it is Morocco in the best form pre-match - they are unbeaten in 18 matches, a record stretching back more than a year, and are favourites for this one as a result.
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African qualifiers Morocco taken on Asian counterparts Iran in the opening game in Group B at the 2018 World Cup. With Spain and Portugal also in the group, this is a meeting between the two unfancied teams in Group B – their first ever game against each other. Taking place at St Petersburg Stadium on Friday June 11, the match kicks off at 6pm local time.
Ayoub El Kaabi’s impressive goalscoring form in the African Nations Championship earned him a late call-up to the Morocco World Cup squad, and also a start in their most recent friendly win in Estonia, but he is expected to drop to the bench to face Iran – Khalid Boutaib will start if so. Morocco have been fairly consistent with their team selection in their pre-tournament friendlies, with only Boutaib and left-back Hamza Mendyl not starting both games of their regular outfield players.
Hakim Ziyech’s goal against Estonia last time out takes him to nine from 18 international appearances, while he also scored nine times as Ajax finished second in the Eredivisie. Ayoub El Kaabi has raced to 11 goals from 10 international appearances, but it is the more experienced Khalid Boutaib (seven from 18 matches) who is expected to start against Iran. The defence – who did not concede a single goal in the final round of qualifying – is led by captain and Juventus defender Medhi Benatia.
Morocco football team are unbeaten in 18 matches in all competitions, and even if you exclude the African Nations Championship for domestic-based players, their unbeaten run still stretches back more than a year now. Their two most recent friendlies saw Ayoub El Kaabi net his 11th international goal and Younes Belhanda grab the winner in a 2-1 comeback win against Slovakia, before they won 3-1 against Estonia – Belhanda again scoring, before Hakim Ziyech and Youssef En-Nesyri sealed victory. Other impressive results of late include a 2-1 victory against Serbia in Turin in March.
Defenders:Achraf Hakimi, Medhi Benatia, Romain Saiss, Hamza Mendyl
Defensive Midfielders:Karim El-Ahmadi, Mbark Boussoufa
Attacking Midfielders:Nordin Amrabat, Younes Belhanda, Hakim Ziyech
One of Carlos Queiroz’s biggest selection decisions before the tournament appears to be whether to start Sardar Azmoun or Reza Ghoochannejhad up front and, after the former started and scored the late winner against Lithuania in their final pre-tournament friendly, he appears set to face Morocco. Omid Ebrahimi replaced Karim Ansarifard for that game, as part of the five-man midfield, and could get the nod if Ashkan Dejagah is deemed to be too short of match fitness after his recent injury lay-off.
Sardar Azmoun’s goal against Lithuania was his 23rd for Iran from just 33 appearances for the national team. The Rubin Kazan striker plies his trade in Russia domestically, and scored five times in the Russian Premier League last season. Winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh arrives at the World Cup in top goalscoring form, meanwhile – he was the Eredivise top scorer last season with 21 from 33 games for AZ, including two hat-tricks. He also claimed 12 assists.
Iran football team have won three of their last five matches, including their 1-0 win in Moscow against Lithuania last time out – courtesy of Sardar Azmoun's late goal. Their two defeats in that time were a 1-0 loss away to Tunisia and a 2-1 defeat – despite Ashkan Dejagah’s late penalty - against Turkey in May. In between, they beat Algeria 2-1 in Austria and won 1-0 in Tehran against Uzbekistan.
Defenders:Ramin Rezaeian, Rouzbeh Cheshmi, Morteza Pouraliganji, Milad Mohammadi
Midfielders:Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Masoud Shojaei, Omid Ebrahimi, Ehsan Hajsafi, Mehdi Taremi
This will be the first time Morocco and Iran have played against each other, but the third time Iran have faced an African team at the World Cup – they have drawn their two previous games against Angola and Nigeria. They lost to Tunisia but beat Algeria in recent friendlies against African opposition.
Morocco have only once faced Asian opposition at the World Cup, losing to Saudi Arabia in 1994, but their recent friendlies include a 2-0 win against Uzbekistan and 3-1 defeat of South Korea – two of the teams Iran finished ahead of in qualifying.
Morocco are unbeaten in 18 matches in all competitions
Iran have only won one previous World Cup game (against USA at France ’98) and have only scored three goals in their last six World Cup matches
Iran have drawn both of their previous World Cup games against African opposition – 1-1 against Angola in 2010 and 0-0 against Nigeria four years ago
Morocco qualified for the World Cup thanks to keeping clean sheets in all six matches in the final round of African qualification
With an unbeaten run stretching back more than a year, it is easy to see why Morocco are favourites for this one. Their recent results include wins against World Cup-bound Serbia and South Korea too, so the quality of their opposition should not be criticised.
In Iran’s favour, however, is their record of not losing to African opposition at the World Cup, alongside the form of Alireza Jahanbakhsh on the eve of the tournament – he was top scorer in the Eredivisie, and has certainly proved his credentials for unpicking Morocco’s impressive defence.
Defensively both teams in impressed in qualifying – Iran conceding just two in the final round of qualifying and Morocco doing even better with six clean sheets out of six games.
Captain Medhi Benatia leads the defence, and as one of Morocco’s most successful exports he will hope to keep Jahanbakhsh and Sardar Azmoun under wraps.
Morocco have strength at the other end of the pitch too, with Younes Belhanda scoring in the last two matches, Khalid Boutaib set to lead the line and newcomer Ayoub El Kaabi having smashed in 11 goals in just 10 appearances for Morocco.
Iran struggled to a late win against Lithuania in their most recent friendly, while Morocco were comfortably beating Estonia – a sure sign the latter are in better form than Carlos Queiroz’s side.
In the grand scheme of the group, with Spain and Portugal both expected to qualify comfortably for the last-16, it may not matter but Morocco can at least start with a win and maintain their unbeaten run.
Morocco are favourites for the match against Iran in St Petersburg, but you can still back them at 13/10 to win with Betfair, Bet365 and Betway.
Given Morocco’s impressive defensive record (and Iran’s lack of goals at recent World Cups) it may be worth backing them to win to nil too. You can get 11/5 from Ladbrokes on Morocco to win to nil.
Along the same lines, betting against both teams to score will return 6/10 with Ladbrokes and 3/5 with Betfair.
Iran’s recent World Cup campaigns have seen very few goals scored, meanwhile, and with both teams having been solid defensively lately you can get a generous best price of 11/8 from Betfair and 888sport on under 1.5 goals being scored.
Khalid Boutaib and Ayoub El Kaabi are the favourites to score first, but Younes Belhanda – with two goals in two games - could be a good outside bet, meanwhile. Bet365 are offering 10/1 on the Moroccan midfielder grabbing the first goal.
Both sides boast good defensive records heading into this fixture, but it is Morocco who have impressed in attack too. They have the better form too, including bettering Iran’s results against South Korea and Uzbekistan, and while there may be very little in it, it is easy to see why Morocco are favourites for this one.