By Michael Church
HONG KONG, May 22 (Reuters) – The stability and pragmatism of Carlos Queiroz’s seven-year reign has firmly established Iran 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.
(Editing by Christian Radnedge)