World Cup LIVEBLOG: Wonder Wednesday

World Cup LIVEBLOG: Wonder Wednesday
Three matches in one day - don't miss all the action from Portugal-Morocco, Uruguay-Saudi Arabia and Iran-Spain at Russia 2018. Keep refreshing this page for all the updates!
22 min read
20 June, 2018
21:56:09 - Game summary: Iran should be proud of themselves for keeping one of the best teams in the world at bay for most of the match. A lucky Diego Costa deflected strike was the difference, however Iran also missed some key chances that could have given them a famous result. But it's not all doom and gloom for Team Melli, as they've got one more chance against Portugal. With a win, they could make their first appearance in the World Cup knock out stages. If they can replicate the same performance against Portugal they will surely have a chance.

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21:55:34 - FULL TIME: How devastating for Iran, who battled for some good chances in the second half. Iran 0, Spain 1.

21:51:23 - YELLOW CARD for a poor challenge from Omid.

Same, tbh.[Getty]

21:50:01 - Four minutes of added time given in which Iran will be looking for an equaliser. Many long balls booted up the field but largely ineffective so far.

21:47:32 - SUBSTITUTION for Spain - goalscorer Diego Costa coming off, Rodrigo on.

21:45:12 - SUBSTITUTION for Iran - Amiri off, Ghoddos on.

21:41:26 - Massive chance for Iran as Amiri nutmegs Pique and sends a beautiful ball to the back post but Mehdi's header just goes over. A goal for Iran would epic at this point.

21:38:10 - SUBSTITUTION - Asensio on for Vasquez. Spain looking for more goals in the tense final ten minutes.

21:37:42 - YELLOW CARD for Iran's Amiri for a bad challenge on Carvajal.

21:36:48 - FREE KICK for Spain as we enter the final 15 minutes. However Isco strikes it straight into the wall. The crowd are going wild as the game intesifies.

21:36:16 - Iran get another chance as a dangerous looping ball just evades Mehdi's feet. So close.

21:36:05 - Iran’s star player Jahanbaksh comes on as captain, replacing Karim.

21:31:50 - SUBSTITUTION. Iniesta off, Koke on.

21:29:08 - Spain try to scramble it over the line with brave defending from Iran who literally lie down in a heap in front of the goal. 

21:28:36 - SUBSTITUTION - Mohammadi comes on for Haji Safi who looks worse for wear.

21:27:58 - CORNER for Spain as Iniesta fails to find another Spanish player inside the box.

21:21:12 - Goal disallowed for Iran! VAR rules offside. Heartbreaking stuff - Spain looks rattled by this Iranian surge led by 'Persian Pogba' Ezatolahi.

21:20:14 - FREE KICK to Iran 30 yards out. 

21:19:02 - Great header from Mehdi, which just goes past the post. Iran responding well with some rare spots of attacking.

21:17:53 - FREE KICK to Spain, taken by Isco. Headed away by Iran for a corner which is cleared easily.

21:13:13 - GOAL! Diego Costa scores for Spain. Iniesta threads it through to Costa and shot is deflected in. Cracks finally appear in Iran's defensive armour. Iran 0 Spain 1.

21:12:57 - Big chance for Iran with a long throw in, but to no avail as the shot hits the side netting.

21:12:39 - Iran's goal under complete siege with continuous attacks.

21:04:39 - And the second half is off, Spain resume control of play.

20:48:51 - First half summary: A stunning 71% of possession for Spain (looks like more), however it has proved almost ineffective as they have struggled to create any clear-cut opportunities and Beiranvard hasn't had to make any challenging saves - yet. Overall, brilliant defending from Iran, but the real challenge will be whether they can keep it up for another 45 minutes as they begin to tire.

20:48:37 - HALF TIME. Kazan is alive with the sound of Iran's vuvuzelas [Getty].

20:46:14 - Three minutes of added time and Spain still going for it. Silva's shot on the edge of the box is deflected wide.

20:43:04 - With only a few minutes left of the first half and no goals yet, Spain will be frustrated after retaining most of the possession and virtually all the chances.

20:40:48 - Haji returns to the pitch with 5 minutes of the first half to go.

20:38:59 - Diego Costa steps on Beiranvard's toe but no action from the ref.

20:36:57 - Iran's Haji Safi down, receiving treatment after colliding with teammate.

20:35:59 - CORNER to Iran as Ramos clears a cross from Ramin. First ball cleared by Diega Costa.

20:31:21 - Chance from Silva, hooking it over the bar from a close distance. Nailbiting stuff but Iran holding on.

20:29:32 - Iran can't even break out of their own half as Spain pile on the pressure. Iran's defence tested but it's a clean sheet so far.

20:25:06 - Both free kicks comfortably saved by a very busy Beiranvard.

20:22:36 - Two free kicks in a row for Spain, both around 30 yards out, We'll see what happens...

20:19:41 - 20 minutes into the game with Spain dominating possession (77%) and relentlessly attacking, but Iran hold strong with everyone behind the ball.

20:17:20 - Iran take a shot at goal, but contentiously ruled offside.

20:11:57 - FREE KICK to Spain, Azmoun trips up Busquets 35 yards from goal. Spain puts it in the box twice, both cleared by Iran. Defence strong.

20:08:46 - FREE KICK to Spain. Omid pushes Isco to the floor. The ball just evades the heads of Costa and Pique.

20:05:06 - FREE KICK just outside the box to Iran, after Carvajal pushes Amiri. Attacking set pieces will be vital for ultra-defensive Iran in this match.

20:03:18 - Isco tips it into the box, but Iran's Beiranvard punches it away. Spain dominating as expected.

20:00:14 - KICK OFF! Strong start for Spain who take it straight to the box. Here's the line-up:

19:53:58 - Let's have a look at our football correspondent Uri Levy's excellent guide to Team Melli while we nod along to the national anthems.

An ATA Airlines jet carrying Team Melli arrives at Moscow's 
Vnukovo International Airport for the World Cup [Getty]

Nickname: Team Melli

Coach: Carlos Queiroz

Star: Alireza Jahanbakhsh

Arriving to Russia: Hoping football will beat the sanctions

Expectations: Fighting for an unlikely spot in the final 16.

Each year, the Iranian football community runs a survey - which team is the favourite in the country? Tehran's giants Persepolis and Esteghlal are always on top - but there is one team that always receives even greater support - Team Melli, the Iranian national team.

It's almost taken for granted. For years, Iran has been the best national team in Asia, and was the second team to guarantee their place in Russia, after Brazil.

With Carlos Quieroz, the former Portugal and Real Madrid coach, in charge, the Iranians have begun a long process of upgrading their football skillset. More than 20 of the Iranian squad played in Europe this season. That's a direct result of Quieroz's great work with the Iranian players over the past seven years, and also an indication of the emerging Iranian footballing talent.

The marquee player in Queiroz's lineup is Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the Dutch Eredivisie top scorer, who has netted 21 goals and 12 assists this season. Jahanbaksh is the first Asian footballer to become a top scorer in any European league. But he is not alone in Russia - Sardar Azmoun of Rubin Kazan, Saman Ghoddos of Ostersunds and Mehdi Taremi from Al-Gharafa are all part of a striking Iranian attacking force here at the World Cup.

Iran's captains - Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi - are two players mired in controversy. The pair were targeted by Iranian politicians and media after playing for Panionios, their Greek former club, against Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv. Many in the bubbles of the elite called for them to be banned - but grassroots Iranian fans supported them with an online campign - #NoBanForOurPlayers was one of Twitter's highest trending topics in 2017. 

While the political storm raged, Shojaei ended up winning the league with AEK Athens, while Hajsafi became an indispensable part of Olympiakos. The two experienced and talented figures will lead the way for Team Melli in Russia.

But despite the promising squad and great coach, Iran's preparations have met a serious obstacle - the US sanctions regime against the country. The friendlies against Greece, Kosovo and Italy were all cancelled, and the Iranians have only had a chance to play against Uzbekistan and Lithuania - not a great gauge of the skill levels of their rivals in the powerful Group B (Portugal, Spain, Morocco).

In addition, Nike, the sports brand that represents eight players on the Iranian squad, have reportedly asked their representatives not to wear the company's shoes during the tournament - as part of the US-led sanctions. 

When politics gets involved in football, it's always a complete madhouse - the United States couldn't even qualify for the tournament, but Trump's presence is felt here in Russia.

With Morocco in the group, anything is possible. Iran's second game is against Spain in Kazan - home to striker Sardar Azmoun, where he will receive huge support from locals. It is unlikely that the Iranians will grab something from a world class team like Spain, though there is a slim chance of success against Portugal. 

Like Morocco, the campaign will not be easy, but it will be hard-fought.

Full squad:

Goalkeepers: Alireza Beyranvand (Persepolis), Rashid Mazaheri (Zob Ahan), Amir Abedzadeh (Maritimo, Portugal).

Defenders: Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), Ramin Rezaeian (Ostende, Belgium), Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), Morteza Pouraliganji (Alsaad, Qatar), Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal), Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny, Russia), Roozbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal), Ehsan Hajsafi (Olympiacos, Greece).

Midfielders: Saeid Ezatollahi (Amkar Perm, Russia), Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens, Greece), Mehdi Torabi (Saipa), Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos, Greece).

Forwards: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar, Holland), Mahdi Taremi (Al Gharafa, Qatar), Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan, Russia), Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen, Holland), Saman Ghoddos (Ostersunds, Sweden), Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest, England), Vahid Amiri (Persepolis).

19:52:32 - Iranian fans who have filled out the arena will be feeling at home in Muslim-majority Kazan, the home stadium of star striker Sardar Azmoun.

19:44:39 - 15 minutes until kick-off at Kazan Arena for a vital game for Group B teams Iran and Spain. If Iran can manage a draw against a star-studded Spanish line-up, they give themselves a good chance of going through.

17:59:36 - That's me @PaullMcloughlin signing out. Don't forget to check out the link below for updates on the Iran v Spain game. That should be a thriller (fingers crossed)

17:57:38 - So the 4 Arab teams in the World Cup have lost every game of the tournament so far. Disappointing night for Saudi fans, but they can be relieved it was just 1-0

17:56:08 - FULL-TIME: Saudi Arabia and Egypt out of the World Cup. Uruguay and Russia through out of Group A into the next round 

17:53:49 - Uruguay with the corner, keeping it in the corner and watching the clock count down

17:52:50 - Two mins and Saudi will be out and Uruguay through to the last 16 of the World Cup

17:50:46 - Deep but weak corner for Saudi Arabia. Keeper gathers it easily but there's four mins extra time

17:49:56 - Saudi on the ball. Hitting the ball sideways but a deflected shot gets a corner

17:47:46 - Saudi Arabia still sitting back. Do they not know the score? One goal could change the game

17:45:47 - Saudi Arabia just five mins (plus extra time) from being knocked out of the World Cup 

17:44:17 - Saudi Arabia get the ball towards Uruguay's box but again it comes to nothing. But Uruguay's defence have to be commended 

17:42:33 - Sanchez off now for Nandez for Uruguay. His nickname is Baby Rooney

17:40:58  - Final Saudi substitution - Number 10 Sahlawi on for Al-Muwallad 

17:38:10 - Uruguay free-kick comes to nothing but it highlights how weak the Saudi defence are on set pieces 

17:36:47 - Change up front for Saudi Arabia. Bahbir on for the much taller Kanno. Perhaps a few long balls now by Saudi? They certainly need to create more chances if they want a goal

17:34:23 - Cavani frustrated he didn't get a free kick when he was brought down outside the box. Easy to see why

17:32:22 - Saudi Arabia on the ball again, passes it wide to Otayf but it goes out of play

17:31:01 - Faraj, close to goal, and follows through as he attempts a header and brings down Muslera

17:27:41 - Saudi take a free-kick from left of goal. Lot of barging in the box. Uruguay manage to head it out of play 

17:23:29 - C. Sanchez heads the ball over the Saudi net. Saudi very lucky there 

17:20:33 - Uruguay with a double substitution - Rodriguez off for Laxalt and Vecino off for Torriera

17:16:10 - Saudi keeper Owais concedes an easy throw in by chipping the ball over his defender into the touchline

17:13:54 - Another attempt on goal for Saudi Arabia. Muslera gathers it comfortably. But Saudi won't give up

17:11:48 - Al-Owais manages to hit the deflection out of play

17:10:34 - Al-Faraj brings down Sanchez outside the box, Suarez to take

17:09:20 - Three minutes in and Saudi Arabia have had a corner, and were flagged offside. They're certainly going for a win

17:05:46 - The teams are coming back onto the pitch for the second half. Uruguay will kick-off

17:01:09 - General consensus is that Saudi Arabia didn't have a bad first half, but some shots and defending left a lot to be desired. Still, Saudi Arabia are just one goal down and with more clinical finishing and focus - and luck - who knows?

16:50:09 - HALF TIME - We're half way through the game. Uruguay 1 - 0 Saudi Arabia

16:47:56 - Taiseer taken off the pitch with a pulled hamstring and replaced with Housain Al-Mogahwi  

16:44:22 - Taiseer falls at the edge of the Uruguay box. He's looking in trouble. Trying to walk it off but looks in pain

16:39:05 - Saudi Arabia so far dominating play with 57 percent possession.. but it's not a pretty game

16:37:04 - Saudi Arabia miss another good chance on goal. Lack of concentration and confidence seems to be holding them back

16:36:01 - Saudi Arabia might be a goal down but they're not giving up, Still managing to pass it about the field well, but so far unable to break through the Uruguay defence

16:34:08 - Cavani brought down by Otayf at the half-way line

16:31:32 - Hatan misses another good chance on goal. He'll be disappointed he didn't keep the ball down

16:30:05 - Saudi Arabia miss another chance on goal. They need to look sharper up front if they want a goal

16:28:37 - Saudi Arabia's Hatan with a shot on goal. Straight at the keeper
16:27:33 - Uruguay with another attempt on goal. Saudi Arabia's defence looking very shaky

16:25:25 - GOAL! Luis Suarez scores a scrappy goal for Uruguay. Poor defending and keeping

16:24:18 - Saudi Arabia with a weak shot on goal by Taiseer. Now a corner for Uruguay

16:22:08 - Uruguay win a corner after a counter attack

16:19:05 - Saudi Arabia managing to frustrate Uruguay. Tempo is lacking in this game which will certainly benefit Saudi

16:17:49 - Another free-kick, this time for Saudi Arabia who move the ball back
16:16:27 - It's sweltering at the stadium with temperatures of 36 degrees on the pitch
16:14:02 - Suarez taken down at the half-way line. Quickly move it forward but the chance is missed

16:13:03 - Saudi Arabia looking a lot better than in their opening game. Holding the ball well and not lacking confidence, despite their 5-0 drumming against Russia, last Friday

16:10:16 - Free kick for Saudi Arabia in a good position just outside the box. Some disagreements on who should take it. Shot goes out of play
16:06:17 - Saudi Arabia with a shot on goal, easily collected by the keeper

16:04:40 - Uruguay already dominating the match with a Suarez shot blocked by Saudi Arabia
16:02:42 - Saudi Arabia kick off the match

15:58:53 - Despite Egypt's second loss in the tournament last night against Russia, Saudi Arabia are still bottom of Group A with a -5 goal difference. The record for any team in the World Cup is Zaire with -14

15:56:07 - Luis Suarez is making his 100th appearance for Uruguay today at Rostov-on-Don stadium
15:47:23 - 

Uruguay - Muslera, Varela, Gimenez, Godin, Caceres, Sanchez, Vecino, Bentancur, Rodriguez, Suarez, Cavani
Saudi Arabia - Alowais, Alburayk, Osama, Ali, Yasser, Hatan, Salman, Otayf, Taiseer, Salem, Fahad

15:31:08 - Each game this tournament had a corresponding hashtag, using the first three letters of both teams. This clash certainly doesn't roll off the tongue - #SAUURU or #URUSAU ?
15:12:01 - Saudi Arabia have a chance of making the impossible to happen. As @JamesBrownsell points out, if Saudi Arabia win by a healthy margin (something in the 7-0 mark), then they might make it possible for Egypt to go through to the next round. I wouldn't put any money on it, but given the upsets this tournament, who knows?

15:03:10 - OK, that's it from me. Thanks for reading - you can follow me on Twitter for a wide variety of bad jokes, The New Arab's Middle East coverage and general outrage at the state of the world: @JamesBrownsell. Right now, I'm handing over to @PaullMcloughlin who is going to be covering the Uruguay v Saudi Arabia game in just under an hour. Over to you, Paul!

14:59:06 - The story of the game in one tweet:

Portugal's rivals will take a lot of heart from that game.

14:55:43 - FULL TIME - Portugal 1 - Morocco 0

That's that. Portugal did what they came to do, but will not have made any fans. Morocco played with heart and spirit - but they're the ones getting the first bus home from the World Cup.

14:55:15 - Portugal just slowing down the game in the final moments to deny Morocco another chance...

14:54:32 - Morocco pushing and pushing, but just can't break through Portugal's defence

14:52:50 - CLOSE! How many chances can Benatia get? Sends the ball high over the goal into row Z of the stands...

14:51:32 - Five minutes of added time

14:50:11 - CLOSE! Ziyach's shot blocked by Pepe. Ziyach with the corner, a handball claim puts an end to the passage of play

14:48:46 - CHANGE for Portugal. Moutinho off, Adrien on.

14:48:04 - Morocco's desperation starting to show now. Final three minutes.

14:46:47 - CHANGE for Morocco - ElAmadi off, Fajr on.

14:46:19 - No penalty

14:44:44 - Ronaldo's free kick straight into the wall, he runs for the follow-up and appears to dive at Amrabat's feet. Tiny knee-on-knee contact. Referee's paused play for the VAR

14:43:42 - A chance here for Portugal - a clumsy tackle on Ronaldo brings the Portuguese star down, just outside the box

14:42:55 - While we're waiting for the scoreline to change...

14:41:32 - Mona Eltahawy, renowned Middle East commentator, once again says what we're all thinking...

14:39:34 - It's all Morocco at the moment. Can they keep this intensity going for the final ten minutes? Can they convert a chance? Can they save their World Cup campaign?

14:38:39 - CLOSE - Benatia wastes another free kick from Ziyach as the ball flicks off his shoulder to go wide.

14:37:16 - Portugal's problem is that they've only got one Ronaldo. And he doesn't seem on top form.

14:36:03 - CHANGE for Morocco - Belhanda, who has looked dangerous at several points today, makes way for Carcela in the #23 shirt

14:33:09 - Brief period of possession for Portugal comes to little. With this brave performance, Morocco will have made themselves a few new fans. Ziyach's free kick, however, is wasted - straight to Rui Patricio's waiting gloves. 15 minutes to go.

14:31:43 - No goals, but Nordin Amrabat is this liveblogger's man of the match so far...


14:30:27 - CH-CH-CHANGES for both teams. Morocco's front-man Boutaib makes way for El Kaabi, and Mario comes off Brazil's attack for Bruno Fernandez

14:27:40 - Ziyach of Ajax takes the free kick, but can't get it to dip into the goal. Portugal breathe a sigh of relief.

14:27:00 - Foul on Boussoffa by Raphael. Yellow card?

14:24:52 - That was a clear handball from Guedes, though not much he could have done about it as Amrabat fired the ball into his elbow

14:23:32 - These fans have come to Moscow with only one thing on their minds

14:22:16 - Portugal were one of the favourites for the World Cup coming into this tournament, but their rivals will be taking heart from this display - indiscipline, poor shaping and a reliance on their superstar front man

14:20:31 - And yet another great chance for Morocco as a free kick drops ideally for captain Benatia. Just can't finish - Morocco's problem for the past hour of play.

14:19:26 - CHANGE for Portugal as Silva makes way for Martins.

14:17:40 - Free kick for Morocco after Boussoufa is brought down. Portugal manage to clear and go on a counter-attack - only stopped by Amrabat, who appears to be everywhere down the right-hand side.

14:16:37 - CLOSE AGAIN! Belhanda gets his head onto a free kick from Ziyach, and Patricio is again tested. This game is heating up!

14:15:17 - CLOSE! Belhanda gets onto the end of an Amrabat set-up and fires a belter of a shot - super save from Portugal's Rui Patricio

14:13:58 - Got to love these Morocco fans. Here's a familiar fez... [AFP]

14:13:01 - Amrabat sends it into the box, finds Ziyach, but it's cleared by Bernardo

14:11:50 - Great opportunity for Portugal totally wasted as Ronaldo skies his shot.

14:07:32 - Short corner for Portugal comes to nothing

14:07:07 - The answer's easy, sunshine - you go for the underdog, always!

14:06:13 - And we're off again. Let's hope Morocco had their oranges. Here's some analysis from the BBC:

13:50:17 - HALF TIME - Portugal 1 - Morocco 0. A scoreline that doesn't really reflect the run of the game.

13:48:13 - Amrabat brought down right in front of the linesman on the goal line. Free kick. Belhanda flicks it on, but Benatia is inches away from making contact. That surely would have been an equaliser.

13:47:09 - Three minutes of extra time

13:45:35 - Amrabat finds Ziyach in the box, but Ziyach can't find the goal 

13:45:03 - Closing up the first half of the match now.

13:43:14 - ElKajoui getting some praise for his efforts...

13:42:47 - Hav eyou ever seen them in the same room? No, neither have I...

13:41:13 - A moment of distraction for Morocco and Ronaldo chips the ball over into the box - great chance for Portugal, but an outstanding save by ElKajoui

13:39:40 - Can imagine some La Liga talent scouts watching this Morocco team with some relish...

13:38:23 - High-footed foul by Cedric on Belhanda gives Morocco a free kick, but it comes to nothing 

13:38:10 - Morocco again! Ziyach just testing Patricio once more.

13:34:27 - Corner for Portugal from Moutinho ends up going out deep; the white shirts just slowing down the game to give themselves some breathing space - but Morocco take it back, and ElAhmedi sends it high and wide. Goal kick. This is shaping up to be a great match.

13:33:35 - Ronaldo fires straight into the Moroccan wall

13:32:40 - Free kick to Portugal, right on the edge of Morocco's box

13:31:48 - Many expected a whitewash from Portugal here. not so - at least not yet.

13:28:28 - No argument here

13:28:17 - Amrabat brought down again! They're clutching each other's shirts and shorts - and it all looks about equal.

13:27:56 - Amrabat brought down on edge of the box - no penalty

13:26:23 - Free kick for Portugal as Benatia catches Ronaldo's left foot and sends CR7 crashing to the ground.

13:24:15 - Ziyach makes a long-range effort, but it's comfortably gathered by Rui Patricio

13:22:54 - The scoreline doesn't favour them, but Moroccos are getting plenty of possession, and plenty of good moves in Portuguese territory

13:20:22 - And another effort comes in from Morocco - just can't get an attacker onto the end of it in front of goal

13:19:46 - Ziyach makes another effort, but held off by the strong Portuguese defence

13:19:10 - Amrabat ditches his protective headgear worn after his suspected concussion in the opening match

13:17:06 - Morocco making a spirited defence in this game. they need to be careful not to press so high they're exposed at the back, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a goal soon...

13:15:42 - Cleared by Portugal, a deep cross is returned into the box - but it all comes to nothing

13:15:02 - Another corner for Morocco...

13:13:06 - Ziyach with the corner, finds Dirar, but Rui Patricio saves Portugal

13:12:09 - Morocco are creating chances here as the first ten minutes comes to a close - now here comes Amrabat, but his effort is cleared away for a corner

13:10:43 - Portugal reply with a break, the ball comes to Ronaldo - Morocco holds its breath - and Ronaldo puts it wide

13:10:03 - Opportunity for Morocco as Boutaib runs up the left flank, but dispossessed.

13:08:43 - Is Ronaldo unstoppable?

13:07:11 - GOAL - Ronaldo dives onto the corner cross and heads the ball into the net

13:05:14 - Silva's cross deflected. Portugal's corner. Cleared. Strong effort comes in, deflected for another corner.

13:03:39 - Strong, bright start from Morocco with Boutaib's first effort just sailing over the crossbar

13:01:47 - Kick off!

13:00:51 - It's clear that Morocco are the underdogs here, but you never know - there's some great talent among the squad. Don't forget Nordin Amrabat even played for the mighty Watford.

12:54:26 - While we're waiting for the anthems, let's remind ourselevs what The New Arab's football correspondent, Uri Levy had to say about the Morocco team:

The majority of Morocco's players are Europeans
with Moroccan roots [Getty]

 The Atlas Lions

Coach: Herve Renard

Star: Hakim Ziyech

Arriving to Russia as: Underdogs aiming to shock the world

Expectations: Round of 16.

The Moroccans have had a fantastic footballing year. Wydad Casablanca won the African Champions League, while more and more European-born Moroccans have signed for clubs in the domestic league. Meanwhile, the 2026 World Cup bid has made headlines worldwide - and the national team has grabbed a World Cup spot after 20 long years, after a campaign in which they didn't concede a single goal.

There's no doubt, that since Herve Renard signed on to lead the national team in 2016, the Atlas Lions have not stopped improving.

The first coach to win the CAF Africa Cup of Nations with two different countries (Zambia and Ivory Coast), Renard is respected throughout the footballing world, and Moroccos's victory against the Ivory Coast in Abidjan will be remembered as one of the best displays of an African side in World Cup qualifications, ever - simply a divine tactical display.

The Moroccans have an extremely talented squad, with the majority of players having come up through European leagues and qualifying for the national team through their heritage rather than birth. 

Mehdi Benattia of Juventus, Hakim Ziyech (the Dutch Eredivisie Player of the Year), Amine Harit of Schalke 04 Real Madrid's Achraf Hakimi are just some of the names which decorate the Atlas Lions' teamsheet.

Renard and his players will look to surprise the whole world and qualify from a near-impossible Group B, which also features Spain, Portugal and Iran. 

But there is a route to the knock-out stages.

If Iran lose all three group games - to Morocco, Spain and Portugal, finishing bottom of the group - Morocco just needs (somehow) to draw against both Portugal (currently ranked the fourth best team in the world by FIFA) and Spain (10th).

With such a squad and the tremendous support of thousands of the Dima Maghreb fans who have made their way to Russia, anything is possible. In the past few months thousands of signs have festooned Casablanca: "Russia, we are coming." They have arrived. 

Full squad:

Goalkeepers: Mounir El Kajoui (Numancia, Spain), Yassine Bounou (Girona, Spain), Ahmad Reda Tagnaouti (Ittihad Tanger).

Defenders: Mehdi Benatia (Juventus, Italy), Romain Saiss (Wolverhampton, England), Manuel Da Costa (Basaksehir, Turkey), Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahce, Turkey), Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid, Spain), Hamza Mendyl (Lille, France).

Midfielders: M'barek Boussoufa (Al Jazira, UAE), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord, Holland), Youssef Ait Bennasser (Caen, France), Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord, Holland), Younes Belhanda (Galatasaray, Turkey), Faycal Fajr (Getafe, Spain), Amine Harit (Schalke 04, Germany).

Forwards: Khalid Boutaib (Malatyaspor, Turkey), Aziz Bouhaddouz (Saint Pauli, Germany), Ayoub El Kaabi (Renaissance Berkane), Nordin Amrabat (on loan to Leganes, Spain, from Watford, England), Mehdi Carcela (Standard de Liege, Belgium), Hakim Ziyech (Ajax, Holland), Youssef En Nesyri (Malaga, Spain).

Fans show their support ahead of the friendly match against Serbia [Getty]


12:48:30 - 12 minutes to kick off in the first of today's matches. Hope you're ready for a marathon day of football!