MOSCOW: Portugal and Spain opened up their World Cup campaigns with an entertaining draw. Now each team wants a routine victory to secure its place in the round of 16.
The first day of simultaneous matches at the tournament includes Portugal playing Iran at the same time its neighbour and rival faces Morocco. The games are scheduled that way to avoid giving any team the advantage of knowing its competitors’ results as group play wraps up.
Portugal and Spain followed up their 3-3 draw with 1-0 victories. That means they’re level atop Group B with four points and the same goal difference. Iran are one point behind thanks to their win over Morocco.
That means Iran could eliminate Portugal from the World Cup with a win. But if Spain loses to Morocco, Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal could advance even in defeat.
Ever the showman, the 33-year-old Ronaldo has scored all four of Portugal’s goals so far while hinting that he considers himself the “GOAT,” or greatest of all time. Now he faces his former national team coach, Carlos Queiroz, who’s led Iran for the past seven years. Iran are playing in their fifth World Cup, but have never advanced out of the group stage.
Queiroz’s stint coaching Portugal ended after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa amid reports of a difficult relationship between him and Ronaldo, who implied the coach was to blame for the team’s failure.
Queiroz called Monday’s game “the most interesting and important match in my seven years with Iran” and said the drama of facing Ronaldo was worthy of a Martin Scorsese movie.
Spain’s sudden dismissal of coach Julen Lopetegui was the talk of the tournament before play began. But that seems like ages ago. Players have moved on under new coach Fernando Hierro.
“We are happy with him and we are learning a lot,” left back Jordi Alba said of Hierro. “The idea remains the same as before with Lopetegui. The team’s essence remains the same.”
Morocco outplayed both Portugal and Iran in stretches, but have yet to score a goal, losing both matches 1-0. Spain are powered by Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa, who has three goals in two matches but could be frustrated by Morocco’s defence, which is anchored by Medhi Benatia of Juventus.
Spain and Morocco play in Kaliningrad, the westernmost city in the World Cup, which is sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea. The Portugal-Iran match is roughly 1,180 miles (1,900 kilometers) to the east in Saransk, the smallest host city in the tournament.
Hosts Russia face Uruguay challenge
Hosts Russia would top their group with a victory or a draw in Samara, thanks to their superior goal difference. Russia beat up on overmatched Saudi Arabia and undermanned Egypt for eight goals in their two victories.
Uruguay, the favourite to win the group, got past each opponent 1-0 and is also assured a spot in the next round.
The Group A winner will face the second-place team from Group B in the round of 16, which could be Iran, Portugal or Spain, while the Group B victor will face the runner-up from Russia’s group.
Saudi, Egypt in meaningless tie
A disastrous World Cup for the teams wraps up with a meaningless match. The tournament has been cruel not just to the Saudis and the Egyptians, but to Arab nations as a whole. They had lost all eight matches entering Monday.
Egypt came in with high hopes because they have one of soccer’s biggest stars in Mohamed Salah, the Liverpool striker and reigning Premier League player of the year. But Salah injured ligaments in his shoulder in the Champions League final and hasn’t been the same player at the World Cup. He scored on a late penalty against Russia after sitting out Egypt’s opener.
Salah has made more news off the pitch. He was granted honorary citizenship by Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a Moscow-backed former rebel who’s been accused repeatedly of human rights abuses.
There are some grudges at play between the nations, which are close political allies. Fans of Salah angrily denounced Saudi Arabia’s top sports official, Turk Alsheikh, on social media after Alsheikh said of Salah, “May God heal you after the World Cup.”