World Cup 2018

Group B: Where the Knockout Stages Start Early

The World Cup will begin on Thursday with its usual fanfare, and everybody will tune in to see Russia v. Saudi Arabia. It’s not, perhaps, the game one might have chosen as a curtain raiser, but it probably represents the hosts’ best chance of opening with a victory from the teams they were drawn with. Tournaments, after all, tend to feel better with the hosts involved.

Their Group A mates meet on Friday afternoon, with Uruguay favoured against Egypt in a clash between Liverpool talisman past and present. Then Group B begins with what is, to my mind, the most intriguing tie of the first round of fixtures: Morocco v. Iran.

Low rankings, high stakes

The Atlas Lions arrive in decent form, with a couple of friendly victories under their belt and, in Ayoub El Kaabi, one of few players who has scored more international goals than he has played games. They are, however, ranked 41 in the FIFA rankings. Iran haven’t been in bad nick themselves, with a couple of wins in their pre-tournament friendlies and top scorer Sardar Azmoun will be playing the second group match against Spain at his home stadium in Kazan. Team Melli enter the tournament ranked 37 in the world.

Herein lies the beauty of this game. Spain and Portugal are huge favourites to qualify from Group B. Morocco have a slim chance (10/3) while Iran are almost no hopers (6/1). This disparity is not unheard of in World Cup groups; indeed, the third ranked team in Group G is Tunisia at 9/2. What is unusual in this case is that the two teams meet in the first game. Normally, the opening game of a tournament is a stressful affair. Two sides meet and try to play their way into a tournament. If there’s a big gulf between them, the better side will usually win out, but nothing is decided there and then.

Not far from sudden death

The game in St Petersburg is different. Both Iran and Morocco will go into that game knowing it represents not just their best chance of a win in the group stages, but perhaps their only chance of a win in the group stages. It isn’t sudden death from the off, but it isn’t so very far away.

In some ways, Russia’s meeting with Saudi Arabia has a similar feel – the hosts are the lowest ranked team in the competition, and the Green Falcons just ahead of them. However, Russia are 7/4 second favourites to qualify from Group A. Home advantage is important.

Looking back through previous World Cups, it is not a common thing for two outsiders in groups to meet in the first game – it happens, especially in the groups where the differential is closer, but not often. Ghana, for instance, played the USA in 2014 with both teams knowing they had Germany and Portugal remaining, each going into the group at around 3/1 to qualify. They might have been heartened a little by the 4-0 victory Die Mannschaft had enjoyed earlier in the day, it was still a vital game. The Americans came out on top, almost beat Portugal in their second game, and squeaked through to the second round on goal difference.

You see, winning this opening match could be vital.

In 2010, New Zealand and Slovakia met in their opening game in Group F, Italy and Paraguay having drawn 1-1 earlier on. The South Americans narrowly outranked Vladimir Weiss’ side, while New Zealand were surprise qualifiers. Again, in that situation, a victory could have been crucial to either side’s hopes of qualification for the second round. As it was, a last gasp Winston Reid equaliser snatched a point for New Zealand, who went on to draw their next two games, and finish ahead of Italy.

The draw left Slovakia in something of a mire, not least after they lost their next game to Paraguay and seemed to bound for an early exit given their last game was against Italy. Famously, the Azzurri crumbled, and suffered an embarrassing 3-2 defeat to send them limping back home bottom of the group, eliminated as holders.

Unknowns, and late goals

It is games like Morocco v. Iran that make the World Cup’s early phases memorable. To a large portion of the audience, a lot of the players will be unknown, so there is the potential of a surprise. The novelty of the tournament means that people won’t yet be suffering from fatigue – by the time South Korea v. Mexico comes around on 23rd June, the story might be very different.

There is also the benefit this game has of being the curtain raiser for Group B. However unlikely either side might be to qualify, the example of previous World Cups gives the victor hope. Three points in a first game of a tournament is massive and means that it might only take one more point over the next two matches to qualify; an achievable, if unlikely, goal.

One thing that these games seem to have in common, and perhaps the only thing, is a prevalence of late goals. John Brooks’ winner for the USA in 2014 was in the 86th minute. Winston Reid’s equaliser came even later, in the 93rd. Tunisia and Saudi Arabia met in 2006, in a group alongside Spain and Ukraine (although the Ukraine were ranked poorly at the time but a rising force). That match was a thrilling 2-2 draw, Sami Al-Jaber putting the Saudis 2-1 up with just a few minutes to go before an injury time equaliser from Rahdi Jaidi.

It is 11/10 for the second half to have more goals than the first; as both teams become increasingly desperate, that would not be an unlikely scenario.

Better to have points on the board and a chance of qualifying going forward than what is likely to be Australia’s lot; beaten by France on Saturday, then a must-win game against Denmark before a dead rubber against Peru.

So, yes, for the football purist, there might not be a lot to be excited about in Morocco v. Iran, but for those who understand that defeat might prove an early knockout blow, it promises to be very interesting indeed.

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