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World Cup history

Perhaps surprisingly Iran are the only one of Asia’s five nations at this year’s World Cup who have never progressed from the group stage, and this is the first time they’ve qualified for consecutive tournaments.

The three-time Asian champions have played at the World Cup on four previous occasions in 1978, 1998, 2006 and 2014, but have only managed one win from their 12 games, but it was one of the most memorable wins in World Cup history.

In 1998, with tensions rising politically between the USA and Iran, the two nations were drawn in Group F and met in Lyon on 21 June, a match Iran won 2-1, one of the most memorable victories in their history.

Qualifying

Iran are Asia’s number one ranked nation for a reason and they proved why in qualifying with a dominant campaign in which they never looked like not qualifying.

Carlos Queiroz was back in charge for his second qualifying campaign, and although he was often at loggerheads with the federation, there was stability around the team, with Queiroz familiar with the players and the players familiar with Queiroz.

Truth be told, they probably started their campaign a little slower than they would have hoped, with unexpected draws against Turkmenistan and Oman in the first stage of qualifying. But despite those small hiccups they were still able to progress to the final stage without defeat.

And this is where Iran really came into their own. Whereas others, like South Korea and Japan, stagnated, Team Mellionly got better.

Despite boasting one of Asia’s most formidable attacking line ups with Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Reza Ghoochannejhad and Sardar Azmoun, they weren’t the most prolific scorers, with just ten goals in their ten matches.

But it was their defence that was the highlight. Three 1-0 wins in the first four matches (the other match being a 0-0 draw with China) got their campaign off to the right note and they never looked back from there.

Only twice did they score two goals in a match, the first a 2-0 win over Uzbekistan and the second a 2-2 draw with Syria in the final match.

It may have been unspectacular in terms of aesthetics, but it was clinically effective and once again they went through the final round without defeat, underlining why they are Asia’s number one ranked nation.

Form

Iran’s good form hasn’t ended with World Cup qualifying, with just one loss in their seven friendly matches since October 2017, that being a 1-0 loss to Tunisia in Tunisia.

With friendlies still to come against Turkey and Lithuania before the World Cup, they’ve scored wins over Togo, Panama, Venezuela, Sierra Leone, Algeria and Uzbekistan, and had a 1-1 draw with World Cup hosts Russia in Kazan.

They are by some measure Asia’s most in form team heading into the World Cup, which should give Queiroz and their fans some confidence as they face the daunting prospect of matches against Spain, Portugal and Morocco.

Coach

Iran are the only one of the five Asian nations who still have the same coach in charge as when they started qualifying back in 2015.

Carlos Queiroz is revered in Iran for the work he has done in transforming this team since he took over from Afshin Ghotbi in 2011. The Portuguese manager has had a tempestuous relationship with the Football Federation of Iran over his seven years in charge, often threatening to walk away unless changes are made to how the team is prepared and managed off the park.

But still he remains, committed as ever to his players. Known as a more pragmatic coach, his teams are ruthlessly organised and difficult to break down, but can be deadly on the counter. Nowhere was this more evident than at the World Cup in Brazil, where his Iran team pushed Argentina all the way, and perhaps should have taken the lead, before a piece of Lionel Messi magic won the game in injury time for Argentina.

Key player

Alireza Jahanbakhsh is the name on everyone’s lips across Asia after his standout season in the Netherlands with AZ Alkmaar. The 24-year-old won the Eredivisie Golden Boot with 21 goals and looks set to make the move to a bigger league and club, if not in this off-season then certainly within the next 12 months. Should he have a series of quality performances in the World Cup his value will only increase. What makes his goalscoring feat so remarkable is that he is more a winger than an out-and-out striker, and together with his 21 goals he also had 12 assists, the equal third highest in the Eredivisie.

Player to watch

If Alireza Jahanbakhsh is the name on everyone’s lips then the name Sardar Azmoun (pictured) isn’t far behind. A year younger than this Team Melli team mate, Azmoun finished the Russian Premier League season with a flurry, with four goals in the final month of the season to cap off what had been a pretty lean year up until that point. But a natural goalscorer, Azmoun has the world at his feet, and it’s often been his goals that have won the points for Iran, with 11 goals in 14 World Cup qualifiers, which equates to almost a third of all of Iran’s goal’s across both qualification rounds. Like Jahanbakhsh, should he have a standout World Cup then a move to a bigger club beckons.


Categories: Analysis | Asia | World Cup

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