An early exit of the 2022 World Cup Asian qualifiers was well on the cards for Iran ahead of a preliminary round encounter against Iraq in Bahrain last June.
Back-to-back defeats against Bahrain and Iraq had left Iran – under former Belgian manager Marc Wilmots – trailing the top two by November 2019, before global football was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
When the qualifications resumed in a centralized format in Bahrain, Croatian manager Dragan Skocic had been tasked as the unlikely hero to steer Iran into the 12-day action in the muggy weather of the Persian Gulf country.
Successive victories over Hong Kong, Bahrain, and Cambodia saw Iran regain momentum in its campaign, but any result other than a victory against Iraq could have still led to Iran being knocked out.
Sardar Azmoun netted a first-half winner as Iran beat Iraq 1-0 for a top-spot finish in Group C, and less than eight months on, a repeat of the same scoreline against Iraq at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium on Thursday will be enough for Skocic’s men to celebrate the country’s easiest-ever qualification for the final showdown – starting Nov. 21 in Qatar.
Iran has been dominating the final group phase of the qualifiers in the continent as five wins in six outings see Skocic’s side sit atop Group A with 16 points – two more than second-placed South Korea, and, more significantly, 10 points clear of the UAE in third.
With the top two of each group directly qualifying for the finals, three more points from the remaining four fixtures will secure Iran’s progress – a rare occasion for the Iranian fans who have often been used to nail-biting qualification campaigns over the years.
As if more drama was needed for Iran ahead of Thursday’s fixture, the Croatian manager will have to do without some key players for the game and next Tuesday’s home fixture against the UAE.
Azmoun, as well as skipper Ehsan Hajsafi and Shabab Al Ahli midfielder Ahmad Nourollahi will sit out the double header after testing positive for COVID-19.
Kayserispor center back Majid Hosseini was the latest to be ruled out of the Iranian squad, also due to a coronavirus infection, and was replaced by Persepolis defender Farshad Faraji.
There has been further frustration for the Croatian as Fenerbahce striker Allahyar Sayyadmanesh – seeking a British work permit ahead of a move to Championship side Hull City – will also miss the game, while Porto’s center forward Mehdi Taremi and Karim Ansarifard reported late for training over flight issues.
Elsewhere in Group A, Lebanon will host South Korea, with the UAE and Syria meeting in Dubai.
Should Lebanon and the UAE fail to come out victorious on Thursday, even a minimum point against Iraq will seal a third consecutive World Cup qualification for Iran.