Iran coasted through qualification for the World Cup but can they translate that form to the finals proper?
Honours: Asian Cup, 1968, 1972, 1976.
FIFA Ranking: 36
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Iran qualified for the World Cup with ease. They coasted through both the second and third round of Asian qualifying; over the course of 18 qualifying games they conceded just five goals and went undefeated. They have been rarely troubled in qualification but can they translate that success to the World Cup after a rather chaotic run up to the tournament?
STAR MAN – Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan)
The 23-year-old, reportedly the subject of interest from Liverpool, has showed glimpses of his undoubted quality in the Champions League, particularly at former club Rostov where he was the architect of a 3-2 group stage win against Bayern Munich during the 2016-17 season.
However, it is for the national team where Azmoun truly excels: he has hit 23 goals in 32 games, with 11 of those coming in qualifying for 2018. Iran will set up defensively so the Rubin Kazan man’s ability to find the back of the net will prove crucial to their hopes of progressing from a tough group.
NEXT BIG THING – Saeid Ezatolahi (Amkar Perm)
The stalwart of Team Melli’s midfield, the 21-year-old has had a nomadic career to date – with a stint at Atletico Madrid sandwiched between spells in Iran and Russia, where he currently plays for Amkar Prem on loan from Rostov.
He is technically sound and also combative, and sets the tone from the base of midfield.
The Portuguese has been at the helm of Team Melli since 2011. He has led them to consecutive World Cups, and has a highly credible win percent of 61.63. His successes in charge of Iran have been built on a defensive footing: they have conceded a paltry 51 goals in his 86 games in charge.
WORLD CUP HISTORY
2018 will be Iran’s fifth appearance at the finals. But they have never been past the group stage. 2014 was a story of small margins going against them – Lionel Messi’s last-minute winner in the second match providing a fatal blow to their hopes of progression.
They have only ever won one game at the finals, and that came back at the 1998 tournament, where they beat USA.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Iran are solid at the back and have difference makers further up the field in Azmoun or Alireza Jahanbakhsh. Basically, this is a vastly improved version of the 2014 squad, who lacked the thrust up front to go with their defensive solidarity.
June 15th: Morocco
June 20th: Spain
June 25th: Portugal