Carlos Queiroz’s squad of 25 has 12 players who play in Europe, rare for an Asian team. Rarer it is to have not one but two players who have constantly been on the radar of top clubs.
In Iran, they are gushing over the quality. The Russia-bound bunch, many believe, is the best-ever they’ve had, better even than the bunch that stunned USA in 1998. Indeed, there are quite a few who rate the Mehdi Mahdavika-led side much higher but they all seem to agree that this is Iran’s most accomplished side ever.
After all, Carlos Queiroz’s squad of 25 has 12 players who play in Europe, rare for an Asian team. Rarer it is to have not one but two players who have constantly been on the radar of top clubs. Alireza Jahanbaksh and Sardar Azmoun lead Iran’s most gifted generation to Russia, seeking to pull off the seemingly impossible task of advancing from a group that contains Spain and Portugal.
In 2014, Queiroz had a well-drilled defensive unit that nearly qualified for the knockout rounds from a tough group comprising Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nigeria and Argentina – a late Lionel Messi goal ended their dreams of a maiden second-round appearance in four attempts. This time, much of Queiroz’s tactics will centre on his two front men, Jahanbaksh and Azmoun, not least because of their blunt attack in Brazil four years ago.
The Portuguese trainer leads a very different-looking squad to Russia. Their ageing back-line is still as miserly, proven during a qualification campaign where they conceded least goals among the Asian teams, but more attacking options give Iran the edge that they lacked in Brazil.
Jahanbaksh is arguably Iran’s best player. The AZ Alkmaar winger was the top scorer in the Dutch League in the season that just concluded, the first Asian to do so. With 21 goals, the 24-year-old has also been one of the top performers in Europe this season, sparking interest from several clubs. Jahanbaksh is fast and direct with an ability to shoot at goal from anywhere.
What’ll make his task easier is that the likes of Azmoun will keep the rival defenders distracted, giving Jahanbaksh the freedom to create havoc on the wings. Azmoun, thus, becomes valuable not just for his goal-scoring abilities, but also to bring his teammates into the game by sneaking in behind the defences and keeping them occupied.
Azmoun’s experience of playing in Russia, for Rubin Kazan and Rostov, too will be handy. Dubbed as the Iranian Messi, Azmoun has scored in the Champions League and has been linked with a move to Liverpool – a rumour that got intensified after he shared a picture of him with Jurgen Klopp in February.
While Jahanbaksh and Azmoun will headline the squad, Queiroz’s go-to man could well be midfielder Mehdi Taremi. He completes the triangle up front, playing in a wide role on the wing opposite to Jahanbaksh, with Azmoun as the central striker. Taremi, like Jahanbaksh, is a winger who can score goals. The Persepolis has been the highest goalscorer in the Iranian league for the last two seasons and moved to Qatari side Al Gharafa in January.
The abundance of strikers has given Queiroz the opportunity to change the team’s identity. In Brazil, Iran played reactive, counter-attacking football owing to a defence-heavy squad that shaped up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. They now line-up in a more positive 4-1-4-1 formation, which suits their attacking style.
Its impact was evident in their qualifying campaign. Their qualification for the 2014 edition was in doubt till the very last match, but this time they were supremely efficient, remaining unbeaten and becoming the second team after Brazil to qualify for Russia 2018, with two games to spare.
Yet, Asia’s best team is going to Russia with modest expectations. The country’s mood was summed up by Iranian football writer Behnam Jafarzadeh in The Guardian, where he admitted the realistic aim for the team would be to nick a point or two. It’s a mindset that perfectly encapsulates the continent’s ambition at the World Cup but in this case, with the luck of draw going against them, there’s little Queiroz can do but hope that his star players live up to the hype and pull off the impossible.