While Friday’s Group B match between Spain and Portugal is the main event, the undercard between Morocco and Iran in St. Petersburg features two sides who will try to bolster their chances to escape the group before their gauntlet against the European powers.
For Morocco, the match is a chance to end a disappointing week on a positive note after the country lost to the united North American bid of the United States, Mexico and Canada to host the 2026 World Cup.
Iran has not been without its own problems, with the most recent one coming this week when American apparel company Nike announced it would not furnish new equipment for Team Melli due to the sanctions levied against the country by the United States following its withdrawal from the nuclear deal between Iran and the allies of the U.S.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
The Atlas Lions punched their ticket to the World Cup for the first time since 1998 by emerging atop a four-team group that included the Ivory Coast. Morocco did not concede a goal in their six qualifying matches and secured passage with a 3-0 victory over Gabon in their final contest.
Morocco is making its fifth World Cup appearance overall and looks to reach the knockout round for the second time. The only other time the Atlas Lions reached the round of 16 was in 1986 in Mexico, where they lost to West Germany 1-0 after winning a group that included England and Portugal.
Iran has qualified for back-to-back World Cup appearances for the first time in its history. Team Melli finished atop Group A in Asian qualifying, going unbeaten in the 10-match round-robin while conceding just two goals. Iran went unbeaten in its final two qualifying rounds, winning 12 and drawing six while outscoring opponents 36-5.
Team Melli has yet to advance out of group play, with their lone win in 12 World Cup matches coming against the United States in France in 1998. They finished last in Group F in Brazil four years ago, drawing Nigeria before losing to Argentina and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Both teams use 4-2-3-1 formations. For Morocco, the backline is anchored by Juventus central defender and talisman Medhi Benatia, while defensive midfielder Karim El Ahmadi provides protection in the midfield. The Atlas Lions also found some offense in their friendlies leading up to this match, totaling nine goals in five matches while going 4-1-0.
Up front, Hakim Ziyech pulls the strings offensively and is coming off a solid season with Ajax and has nine goals in 18 international appearances. Khalid Boutaib is also a competent scorer, evidenced by his hat trick versus Gabon and his 12 goals for Turkish side Yeni Malatyaspor.
Midfielder Mbark Boussoufa is Morocco’s most capped player with 59 international appearances, followed by Benatia (57). El Ahamdi is the only other player with more than 50 caps.
After being held to one goal in group play in Brazil, Iran coach Carlos Quieroz has an improved offense to go with his organized defense. Team Melli has an up-and-coming winger in Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who had 22 goals in 39 matches in all competitions for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, with all but one of them coming in league play.
For striker Sardar Azmoun, it will be a homecoming of sorts since he plays for Russian side Rubin Kazan. The 23-year-old Azmoun has 23 goals in 33 matches for Team Melli and bagged 11 of them in the most recent qualifying cycle.
Midfielder Ehsan Hajsafi is Iran’s most-capped player with 94 appearances, while talisman Masoud Shojaei (74) and striker Karim Ansarifard (64) are the other players on Team Melli with at least 50 caps. All three also play in Greece at the club level.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Morocco – Hakim Ziyech (MF)
Ziyech has been one of the key contributors to Morocco’s 18-match unbeaten streak it carries into this contest. A dual citizen who turned down the chance to play for the Dutch national team, Ziyech has been tipped for bigger places than Ajax, and a good showing here would enhance those potential moving opportunities to bigger teams.
Iran – Alireza Jahanbakhsh (MF)
Like Ziyech, Jahanbakhsh has been making life miserable for defenses in the Eredivisie. This will be the 24-year-old’s second World Cup and appeared in all three matches for Team Melli in Brazil. Though Jahanbakhsh has only four goals in international play, his playmaking should not be overlooked; he also recorded 14 assists for AZ in domestic play this season.
RUMORED TO MOVE
Ziyech is being linked for a move up the food chain this summer, with Everton reportedly in pursuit along with eternal Merseyside rival Liverpool, with the latter needing to build depth for a second straight season of Champions League play after a deal for Lyon’s Nabil Fekir fell through last week.
Jahanbakhsh also appears poised to command a large transfer fee, with Serie A club Napoli among potential suitors for the Iran international. As the first Asian to lead a European league in scoring, Jahanbakhsh likely will command an eight-figure transfer fee at his next destination.
Per Ladbrokes, Morocco have been established as 6-5 favorites, with Iran getting 27-10 odds to win. The odds of the teams splitting the points is listed at 19-10. Boutaib and Ayoub El Kabbi are both listed at 5-1 as the first goal-scorers of the match, with Azmoun close behind at 11-2 and Ziyech at 6-1. There are also 5-1 odds on their being no goal-scorers.
There is plenty of incentive to win this match given both sides will then have to fancy their chances against the group heavyweights. In terms of FIFA rankings, Iran has been the best team in Asia for four years, but it is only recently Team Melli has offensive options that can augment their defense.
Morocco coach Herve Renard, though, is one of the better architects in international soccer and the only coach to win the Africa Cup of Nations with two different countries. While Iran will be patient and look for its opportunities to strike on the counter, the Atlas Lions must also show patience through Ziyech’s string-pulling to find creases in Iran’s defense.
This match has all the makings of a 1-0 scoreline in either direction, and given Morocco’s run-in against a higher calibre of competition in its run-up to Russia, look for the Atlas Lions to emerge with those three points.