Thirteen days of scare, agony, and anxiety came to an end for Iranian football fans on Tuesday when a single-goal victory over Iraq saw the Asian powerhouse win Group C of the World Cup Asian qualifiers’ preliminary round.
When Dragan Skocic’s team resumed its campaign in Bahrain – following a nearly 18-month halt caused by the coronavirus pandemic – the Croatian knew only a clean sweep of victories would see his side through, not to mention they had to overcome the muggy weather of the Persian Gulf country and imperfect pitches of the host venues.
And that’s exactly what the Iranians did.
Easy wins over Hong Kong (3-1) and Cambodia (10-0) were coupled with a 3-0 rout of the host, before Zenit St. Petersburg striker Sardar Azmoun tapped in a first-half low cross by skipper Ehsan Hajsafi to lead Iran to the victory over their familiar foes.
“We had not beaten Iraq and Bahrain in recent years for different reasons, but we managed to defeat two really good sides this time,” said Azmoun, who scored his 37th international goal, adding, “They had some quality players, but we were by far the better side.”
It was also a mission accomplished for Skocic, who replaced Belgian Marc Wilmots following the 2-1 defeat against Iraq in the reverse fixture.
Tuesday’s triumph is just the beginning of the route for Iran, who will have to battle with 11 other teams for a third successive place in the World Cup finals.
Iran, Iraq, Syria, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Vietnam, Lebanon, China, and Oman will be split into two groups for four spots – and possibly a fifth – in the showpiece in Qatar next year.
Iranian keeper Alireza Beyranvand seemed not to be carried away by the early success, writing in an Instagram post, “This progress is not a big deal for a team who has been in the two previous World Cups. However, some circumstances made it hard for us, but we again proved to be the men for tough days.”