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Tuesday, August 14

Iran

World Cup

World Cup preview: Iran

Ahead of this summer's World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole assesses the chances of an Iran side which was the only Asian nation to go through qualifying unbeaten.

For the first time in their history, Iran will be appearing at the World Cup for the second successive tournament this summer as they look to break new ground in Russia.

Indeed, this is the fourth time in the past 20 years that Team Melli have made it to the grandest stage in the game, but they are yet to progress past the group stages.

Whether or not they will be able to do that this summer remains to be seen, but at a politically-tense time for the country they will at least hope to let their football do the talking.

Here, Sports Mole assesses Iran's chances at the 2018 World Cup.


GROUP

Iran's hopes of making it through to the knockout stages for the first time may have been over before they had even begun when they were drawn in a group which is arguably the most difficult for any of the underdogs to qualify from.

Iberian giants Spain and Portugal will be expected to occupy the top two spots when all is said and done, meaning that it would make a major upset at some stage if Iran are to pull off something special and reach the round of 16.

Iran will at least be hopeful that their campaign will get off to a positive start when they face Morocco - the easiest opponents on paper - in their opening match, but even victory in Saint Petersburg is unlikely to raise optimism beyond realistic levels.

IRAN FIXTURES

June 15: Morocco vs. Iran (4pm, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg)
June 20: Iran vs. Spain (7pm, Kazan Arena, Kazan)
June 25: Iran vs. Portugal (7pm, Mordovia Arena, Saransk)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Based solely on qualifying, Iran should be Asia's best hope of a good showing at Russia 2018, having been the only team to have come through that section without losing a single game.

Team Melli won 12 and drew six of their 18 games across both qualifying rounds, extending an unbeaten run in World Cup qualifying which now stretches all the way back to November 2012.

Iran scored 26 goals and conceded just three on their way to top spot in their opening stage, and while their scoring rate declined in the second stage - 10 goals from as many games - their defence remained sturdy as ever.

Indeed, Carlos Queiroz's side kept clean sheets in 12 consecutive qualifying games before conceding twice in a draw with Syria in their final match, a result which saw them finish a full seven points clear of South Korea in the standings.

It was Iran's most successful qualifying campaign since the 1978 World Cup, when they also remained unbeaten and won 10 of their 12 outings en route to Argentina.


RECENT FORM

Iran have lost just two of their 10 matches since the end of their qualification campaign, winning seven of those games including four already this calendar year.

A late Sardar Azmoun strike fired them past Lithuania in their final warm-up game, ensuring that they will travel to Russia off the back of a win having lost 2-1 to Turkey prior to that.

Iran have also beaten Sierra Leone, Uzbekistan and Algeria so far in 2018, although their only match this year against another team that will be at the World Cup ended in defeat to Tunisia in March.

Looking even further back, Iran have suffered only three defeats in their last 36 outings, and you have to go back to March 2015 for their most recent defeat by more than a one-goal margin.


SQUAD

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

Defenders: Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), Ramin Rezaeian (Ostende), Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), Morteza Pouraliganji (Alsaad), Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal), Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny), Roozbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal).

Midfielders: Saeid Ezatolahi (Amkar Perm), Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens), Mehdi Torabi (Saipa), Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), Ehsan Haji Safi (Olympiacos), Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos), Vahid Amiri (Persepolis).

Forwards: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar), Mehdi Taremi (Al Gharafa), Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan), Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen), Saman Ghoddos (Ostersunds), Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest).


STAR PLAYER - Alireza Jahanbakhsh

Iran's goalscoring return in the second half of qualifying, which only marginally improved in their pre-World Cup friendlies, could prove problematic if it continues into the tournament proper.

AZ Alkmaar winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh does have the ability to create and score goals, however, which he further highlighted in the 2017-18 campaign when finishing top of the Eredivisie goalscoring charts.

Jahanbakhsh has inevitably earned links with some of European football's big names, and a positive showing on the biggest stage of them all will only drive his valuation up further.

The first Asian player to top the goalscoring charts in one of Europe's major leagues, the 24-year-old must now replicate his club form at international level - four goals in 37 caps being an underwhelming return in comparison.


MANAGER - Carlos Queiroz

A position in charge of the Iran national team is not necessarily where you would expect to see a former Real Madrid and Portugal manager, but Queiroz has held that position for more than seven years now.

Initially appointed in April 2011 on a deal until the 2014 World Cup, the former Manchester United assistant impressed enough to earn an extension to this summer's tournament, where they became the third team to qualify after hosts Russia and Brazil.

The vastly-experienced 65-year-old's stock has continued to rise despite his more modest surroundings, then, and Russia 2018 will be his third successive World Cup as a manager, having led his native Portugal in 2010 and Iran four years ago.

Queiroz also spent a spell in charge of Portugal in the early 1990s, and his work as number two at United was so impressive that he was appointed Madrid boss in June 2003 - although he held that position for less than a year.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: Group Stages (1978, 1998, 2006, 2014)

As mentioned, Iran have never made it out of the group stages at the World Cup, being knocked out at the first hurdle in all four of their previous appearances at the tournament.

Indeed, they have only ever won one World Cup match before, although that victory over United States at France 1998 is one which will live long in the memory of every football fan associated with both countries.

Iran's appearance in France was their first in 20 years following on from their debut outing in 1978, but they have been a much more regular fixture since with outings in 2006 and 2014.

It took a 91st-minute winner from Lionel Messi for Argentina to squeeze past them four years ago, but Iran still only managed one point as they finished bottom of the group - a fate which has befallen them in three of their previous four World Cup experiences.

Overall Iran have played only 12 matches at the World Cup, with that solitary victory being joined by three draws and eight defeats. Iran have also never scored more than two goals at a single World Cup, netting seven times in total while conceding 22.


PREDICTION

Iran's form heading into this World Cup is respectable, but they would need to pull off some major surprises if they are to avoid another group-stage exit this summer considering the presence of Spain and Portugal in their group.

VERDICT: Fourth in Group B

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