16:00 KO (BST), Friday 15th June, Krestovsky Stadium (St Petersburg), ITV
Iran and Morocco have been billed as the best teams Asia and Africa, respectively, have to offer and, with well-drilled defences and well-coordinated pressing, their Group B opener in St Petersburg looks set to be a tight affair.
Both teams will be looking to use this game as a launchpad to defy the odds and pip Portugal and/or Spain in qualifying from the group.
While it’s not a must-win game for either team, it’s certainly a must-not-lose situation. Defeat for either team could signal ominous signs with two seemingly tougher games yet to come.
Morocco finished the final round of qualifying with an unbreached defence in their six games, hitting form in the second half of their qualifying campaign. Iran meanwhile went unbeaten in qualifying, an impressive record of nine consecutive clean sheets only broken once qualification had been confirmed.
Last Time Out
Estonia 1-3 Morocco (International Friendly)
Morocco continued their reach vein of form with a dominant win in Tallinn, stretching their unbeaten run to 18 games coming into their World Cup campaign.
A quick start by the visitors was rewarded with a goal by Younes Belhanda after a lovely flick by Ayoub El Kaabi. Hakim Ziyech then converted a penalty after Amine Harit was tripped seven minutes before half-time.
Half-time substitute Youssef En-Nesyri then put the game to bed from close range in the 72nd minute before Estonia scored an easy consolation goal through Ats Purje four minutes later.
Belhanda had a good game, showing a much-needed return to form, whilst Ayoub El Kaabi shone by showing he can provide the movement and link-up play that Herve Renard hasn’t seen in his other strikers. In doing so, he has given Renard a selection headache going into this opening game.
Iran 1-0 Lithuania (International Friendly)
Carlos Queiroz’s side warmed up for the World Cup with a hard-fought, clean-sheeted result they are known for, and one they will take during the World Cup.
The match was played behind closed doors and Iran reportedly soaked up the pressure for much of the game before bagging a late winner through Karim Ansarifard.
The major fitness doubt for Morocco is right back Nabil Dirar. His knock will probably see Nordin Amrabat retreat to right-back and Schalke’s Amine Harit start on the right wing.
The big decision Renard has to make is whether to opt for Khalid Boutaib or Ayoub El Kaabi as the lone striker.
The latter has impressed in recent outings and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him named in the starting XI.
Carlos Queiroz is without midfielder Saeid Ezatolahi, who is suspended, with the experienced captain Masoud Shojaei starting in place of the youngster.
He may start deep or more advanced to accommodate Karim Ansarifard or Omid Ebrahimi.
Key Battle: Hakim Ziyech (Morocco) vs Sardar Azmoun (Iran)
To breach a renowned Iran defence may require something special from Morocco, but this is where Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech will be key.
Morocco have a cadre of attacking midfielders, though out of them all only Ziyech has the range of passing in his artillery to unlock a watertight defence like Iran’s.
For Iran, Azmoun’s 11 goals in 14 games in qualifying highlight him as the man with the goal scoring responsibilities, along with Alireza Jahanbakhsh.
This will be tight game where Iran will remain compact and pick their moments. Azmoun will have to score with the few chances that come his way versus a Moroccan defence that has a safety-first policy.
The Atlas Lions haven’t faced such a disciplined team in a competitive game in a while, certainly not in qualifying for this tournament.
The last time they did face such gritty opposition during Renard’s tenure was when they lost 1-0 to Egypt in the AFCON 2017 quarter-final.
In fairness, Morocco were missing Hakim Ziyech (left out of the squad), Younes Belhanda (injured), and they had a profligate attack, but despite the caveats one thing was clear: Renard had certainly met his tactical match in Hector Cuper.
Morocco will need to be proactive in taking the game to Iran, The way they approach this game and manage it will tell us a lot about them and how much they have evolved under Renard’s guidance.
Two tactically respected coaches go head-to-head
One reason that Herve Renard has done so well in Africa is his tactical knowledge has put him levels above the rest.
The manner in which he changes formations in-play and gives players very specific instructions has caught rival managers off guard and, more often than not, they could not counter him.
Renard’s debut in the World Cup is intriguing as in Carlos Queiroz he will face one of international football’s fine managerial minds, with the diligence to shut teams out.
Renard knows the art of tournament football is avoiding defensive mistakes, but so does Queiroz.
PREDICTION: Morocco 1-1 Iran
This looks like it will be a low-scoring game which neither side will want to lose.
The onus will be on Morocco to take the game to Iran, but Queiroz’s side are more than capable of keeping them at bay.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group B in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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