Making their fifth FIFA World Cup appearance this summer, Iran face an uphill task if they are to progress beyond the group stage for the first time in their history.
Iran, who were the third team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup after hosts Russia and CONMEBOL winners Brazil, kick off their Group B campaign against Morocco in Saint Petersburg on Friday June 15.
A daunting encounter with Spain in Kazan follows five days later, before Iran round off their group campaign on Monday June 25 by taking on Portugal in Saransk.
Road to Qualification
Iran breezed through the second round of AFC qualifying, remaining unbeaten in their five-team group that also included Oman, Turkmenistan, Guam and India. Carlos Queiroz’s side recorded 6-0 wins in their home and away ties with Guam, scoring a total of 26 goals in their eight group fixtures and conceding only three.
The third and final round of qualification in Asia proved just as straightforward, with Iran undefeated in their ten group matches. Injury-time goals from Reza Ghoochannejhad and Alireza Jahanbakhsh in their opening-day 2-0 win over Qatar set Iran on their way, before the challenges of China, Uzbekistan, Syria and South Korea gradually fell away.
Qualification was assured with two matches to spare, following a 2-0 home win over Uzbekistan. The 2-2 final-day draw with Syria was the only fixture in which Iran failed to keep a clean sheet.
Ten goals in as many matches represented a modest goalscoring return, with three of Iran’s fixtures ending goalless.
AFC World Cup Qualifying Third Round
Most starts: Alireza Beiranvand, Saeid Ezatolahi, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Morteza Pouraliganji, Milad Mohammadi (9), Ramin Rezaeian (8), Mehdi Taremi (7), Ehsan Hajsafi, Sardar Azmoun (6), Ashkan Dejagah (5), Pejman Montazeri, Vahid Amiri, Masoud Shojaei (4)
Most goals: Sardar Azmoun (4), Mehdi Taremi (3), Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Reza Ghoochannejhad (1)
Most assists: Masoud Shojaei (2), Ramin Rezaeian, Mehdi Taremi, Sardar Azmoun, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Karim Ansarifard (1)
Since qualifying, Iran have won six of their nine friendlies: a draw with World Cup hosts Russia and away defeats to Tunisia and Turkey the only blemishes on a run of victories over admittedly limited opposition in Togo, Venezuela, Panama, Sierra Leone, Algeria and Uzbekistan.
The Key Targets
With 23 international goals in 31 appearances, Sardar Azmoun (£6.1m on Fantasy iTeam | £8.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) is Iran’s main threat in attack and was their top goalscorer in qualifying (11 goals across two rounds).
Dominant in the air and comfortable with the ball at his feet, the Rubin Kazan striker will be the spearhead of the Iranian attack in a 4-2-3-1 or in Queiroz’s favoured 4-3-3 formation. The fact that Azmoun has yet to hit double figures in a single league season is some cause for concern, as is Iran’s unexceptional goalscoring record in qualifying: five teams outscored Iran in the third round of AFC qualification.
With a total of eight goals in qualifying, Mehdi Taremi (£5.9m on Fantasy iTeam | £7.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) is a marginally cheaper forward option, albeit an inconsistent one. Taremi will likely play on the opposite flank to Alireza Jahanbakhsh (£6.0m on Fantasy iTeam | £7.0m on McDonald’s FIFA), the exciting AZ winger/forward who finished as top goalscorer on 21 goals in this season’s Eredivisie. Jahanbakhsh also supplied 12 assists for the Dutch club in 2017/18.
Iran’s strength in qualification was not, in fact, their attack, but rather their solid defence. Featuring in all-but-one of their third-round fixtures, Morteza Pouraliganji (£5.3m on Fantasy iTeam | £4.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) is a safe bet to start at centre-half. The tough, no-nonsense defender is also a considerable aerial threat from set-pieces, having scored an impressive ten goals in 49 appearances for Qatari club Al Sadd.
The Long Shots
Nottingham Forest fans may just about recognise Ashkan Dejagah (£5.5m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.5m on McDonald’s FIFA), who played all of 14 minutes for the Championship club after signing on a short-term deal in January. The main concerns around Dejagah surround his fitness, having played a grand total of 128 minutes in his last two seasons at club level.
Should he feature, the former Fulham attacking midfielder offers assist potential from set pieces and will also likely be on spot-kick duties, having scored penalties in qualifying and in Iran’s recent friendlies – including the consolation goal in the 2-1 defeat to Turkey on 28 May.
With goalkeepers receiving a point for every two saves made on Fantasy iTeam’s World Cup competition, Alireza Beiranvand (£5.3m on Fantasy iTeam | £4.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) could quickly rack up a tidy score in Iran’s matches against Spain and Portugal. Beiranvand is also famed for his long throws and offers the unlikeliest of assist possibilities: his astonishing 70-yard throw led to a goal in Naft Tehran’s 2-1 victory over Tractor Sazi in November 2014.
Areas to Avoid
Nicknamed the “Persian Pogba”, 21-year-old midfielder Saeid Ezatolahi (£5.4m on Fantasy iTeam| £5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) is tipped for great things – but also suspended for Iran’s opening group match against Morocco, which surely represents Iran’s best chance of what would only be their second victory in a World Cup fixture.
While Beiranvand has the compensatory save points to fall back on in intimidating-looking fixtures against Spain and Portugal, there is no such safety net for the defenders in front of him.
Rouzbeh Chesmi (£4.5m on McDonald’s FIFA), listed as a £5.3m midfielder on Fantasy iTeam, started Iran’s away friendly in Turkey alongside Pouraliganji and looked suspect as Cenk Tosun scored twice for the hosts. The second centre-back position appears to be a weakness, with 34-year-old Pejman Montazeri (£5.3m on Fantasy iTeam | £4.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) another unconvincing option in that role. Veteran centre-half Jalal Hosseini was surprisingly omitted from Queiroz’s preliminary 24-man squad.
June 8: v Lithuania (n)
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