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Rediff.com  » Sports » World Cup: Can Iran break group stage hoodoo?

World Cup: Can Iran break group stage hoodoo?

May 22, 2018 09:50 IST

World Cup

IMAGE: Iran fans show their support. Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

The stability and pragmatism of Carlos Queiroz's seven-year reign has firmly established Iran's as Asia's number one team, but the nation will go to the World Cup hoping to advance for the first time to the knockout phase.

Queiroz's side face a daunting task after being drawn to take on Morocco, Spain and Portugal. However, Team Melli represent the Asian Football Confederation's best hope of a successful 2018 finals.

 

Iran will be appearing at the World Cup for a fifth time and on each of their four previous visits -- in 1978, 1998, 2006 and 2014 -- they were unable to advance beyond the group phase.

But Queiroz, who took charge in April 2011, has long targeted a run that would see the country progress for the first time and has worked hard to encourage the authorities in Iran to give him the tools required to achieve that goal.

Queiroz's main concern has been the disparity in the fitness between those in his squad playing in Iran and those featuring overseas, with the country's foreign-based players key to hopes of success.

Principal among the weapons at Queiroz's disposal is Rubin Kazan striker Sardar Azmoun, a forward in the mould of Iranian great Ali Daei whose goals were instrumental in Iran becoming the first Asian nation to qualify for the finals.

Azmoun is backed up by the pace and trickery of Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who goes to Russia off the back of an impressive season for AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie, while Qatar-based striker Mehdi Taremi adds another dimension to the attack.

Iran qualified for the World Cup having conceded only twice in the final phase and both of those goals came against Syria after their spot in the finals had already been secured.

That 2-2 draw at the Azadi Stadium marked the first time Queiroz's team had allowed the opposition to score in a competitive game since a 3-1 win over Turkmenistan in November 2015, a run stretching back 13 matches and almost 22 months.

Iran will need players such as central defender Mortez Pouralighanji and highly-rated defensive midfielder Saeid Ezatolahi to be at the top of their game if they are to achieve their dream.

Morocco will pose a tough challenge but might not have the depth to achieve their ambition

Morocco

IMAGE: Morocco's Medhi Benatia and Nabil Dirar applaud the fans. Photograph: Massimo Pinca/Reuters

Morocco improved markedly through the African qualifiers to emerge as the form team from the continent heading to the World Cup but their chances of making an impact in Russia were dealt a heavy blow at December's draw.

The north Africans were paired with reigning European champions Portugal and their predecessors Spain in Group B, and open their campaign with a tough encounter against Iran.

They need to start with victory in St. Petersburg on June 15 to stand any chance of progress and then hope that they might steal some points off the two heavyweights in their next two group games.

Morocco will pose a tough challenge but might not have the depth to achieve their ambition of progressing beyond the first round.

Their squad draws heavily from the diasporas in Europe and benefits greatly from players born or brought up in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain.

The Dutch flair of Mbark Boussoufa, Hakim Ziyech and Nordin Amrabat pairs well with the likes of French-born Younes Belhanda and Mehdi Benatia. The 'Atlas Lions' have also seen Spanish-born Achraf Hakimi make a La Liga debut for Real Madrid this season.

But Morocco's weaknesses in goal and at centre forward, where constant switches in selection reflect the ongoing search for a solution, pose a serious problem.

Admittedly, they came through the qualifying campaign without conceding a goal in the group phase and eliminated the Ivory Coast, who had been to the previous three World Cups.

It was particularly sweet for coach Herve Renard, who only two years earlier had led the Ivorians to the 2015 African Nations Cup title.

The flamboyant Frenchman, whose tight-fitting white shirt and bronzed physique make him look something like a beachboy rock star, has kept up his Midas touch on the continent, overcoming initial friction within the Morocco camp to forge a solid unit.

It will be Morocco's fifth appearance at the finals but first since 1998 in France, where they beat Scotland 3-0 but still fell short of a place in the last 16.

They will look back even further to draw inspiration for their current predicament.

At the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Morocco also had a seemingly near-impossible task but, against all odds, topped a group also containing England, Poland and Portugal.