Iran, Morocco, Portugal, Spain
Portugal, fresh from being crowned European champions for the first time in 2016, managed to top Group B in UEFA qualification on goal difference having won nine of their 10 matches along with Switzerland. Impressively they scored 32 times and conceded twice.
Iran are the minnows in their World Cup group, but they dominated their AFC qualifying section ahead of South Korea – they were unbeaten and claimed 22 points from 10 games. Their defensive record of just two conceded will give them hope of causing an upset in Russia.
In the third round of African qualification, Morocco finished ahead of both Gabon and, more surprisingly, the Ivory Coast. They also did not suffer any defeats in their six games to finish four points clear of the Elephants.
The 2010 World champions Spain won nine of their 10 qualifiers and made light work of their opponents, which included Italy, who ultimately were eliminated in the play-offs by Sweden. Manager Julen Lopetegui has made an impressive start to his reign.
Previous World Cups
Spain are the only country of the four to have claimed the famous trophy; their 2010 win was sandwiched between two European Championships as the Iberians dominated world football. 2014 was a disappointment, though, and Vicente del Bosque’s squad came across as stale.
Portugal were also below par four years ago as they bowed out in the group stage. Their best finish was third place in 1966, while they were also semi-finalists in 2006. This is likely to be Cristiano Ronaldo’s last chance to claim the biggest international trophy.
Iran have now qualified for three of the last four World Cups, though they have never reached the second phase and it would take an almighty upset for them to do so this time around.
2018 will be Morocco’s fifth appearance at the finals, with 1986 the only time that they got to the round of 16; they had not qualified for the competition since 1998.
Frenchman Hervé Renard is an experienced manager internationally having been in charge of Zambia, Angola and the Ivory Coast. The 49-year-old has won the Africa Cup of Nations twice, though this is his first tournament with the Atlas Lions.
Carlos Queiroz, coach of Iran, is widely respected having been an important part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s staff between 2004 and 2008. The Portuguese has been at the helm of the central Asians since 2011 and reaching Russia has been his biggest achievement.
Julen Lopetegui is yet to win a senior trophy as manager but had a solid record in charge of FC Porto. His Spanish squad is well balanced and reaching the latter stages is very much a realistic target.
Fernando Santos took charge of his native Portugal after the disappointment of 2014 and, despite their poor group stage showing, the southern Europeans won Euro 2016 against the odds. A solid showing at last summer’s Confederations Cup will give the 63-year-old belief that they can beat Spain to top spot in Group B.
Lopetegui was able to leave out talents such as Alvaro Morata, Cesc Fabregas and Juan Mata from his final 23 given the depth that he has at his disposal. A lot of pressure will be on Diego Costa to replicate his club form on the international stage – something he has struggled to do to this point.
Portugal rely heavily on Cristiano Ronaldo and the 33-year-old has had another stellar campaign, even if his role has changed somewhat; the talisman is now more a ruthless finisher than flying winger. Andre Silva, the Milan striker, has a decent record and could be a player to watch.
Iran have a 24-man squad currently, with one player to be culled, and their five forwards have goals in them. Sardar Azmoun scored just five times for Rostov in the Russian Premier League last season but has 23 in 32 appearances for his country.
Medhi Benatia of Juventus captains the North Africans with Morocco boasting a host of players that play in Europe’s top leagues. Ayoub El Kaabi scored nine goals as his country claimed this year’s African Cup of Nations and could be key to their chances of an upset.
Spain are clearly the standout favourites in Group B and they are 6.25 to claim the World Cup for a second time. Portugal are likely to have too much quality to not finish at least second, though Morocco have the potential to be a tricky opponent. Getting a win from a difficult group would represent a good showing for Iran.