With two weeks until Iran’s first game at the FIFA World Cup, the race is on among Carlos Queiroz’s men to book a place in the 26-man squad heading to Qatar.
Thirteen Persian Gulf Pro League players plus three from the Qatari top-flight are participating in a training camp in Tehran ahead of Thursday’s friendly against Nicaragua.
The group, however, is expected to be scaled down by FIFA’s Nov. 13 deadline for the squad announcement as the Portuguese manager will almost certainly name 14 overseas players in his final roster.
Alireza Beiranvand, Seyyed Hossein Hosseini, Payam Niazmand, and Mohammadreza Akhbari have been the four Iranian keepers in the trainings for the past one month.
While Beiranvand is all but guaranteed a place between the posts for the Group B opener against England on Nov. 21, with Amir Abedzadeh – playing for Spanish second-tier club Ponferradina – likely to be the second choice on the bench, Queiroz will have to drop two of the other three for the trip to Qatar.
Still, Abedzadeh’s unimpressive form this season, which has seen him concede 16 goals in 10 outings, may convince the Portuguese to come up with a surprising decision for the position.
Ramin Rezaeian is the only right back in the ongoing training sessions, meaning the Sepahan player and Dinamo Zagreb’s Sadeq Moharrami will surely be on Queiroz’s list.
In the opposite flank of the defensive back four, Ehsan Hajsafi, Milad Mohammadi, Abolfazl Jalali, and Omid Nourafkan are in contention for selection, with the former and latter also capable of playing as a defensive midfielder.
Shoja Khalilzadeh, Hossein Kan’anizadegan, Majid Hosseini, Morteza Pouraliganji, Saman Fallah, and Rouzbeh Cheshmi are the six center-backs at Queiroz’s disposal.
Khalilzadeh and Kan’anizadegan played an integral part to Iran’s qualification campaign – under former coach Dragan Skocic – and the Al Ahli duo will presumably forge the defensive partnership against Harry Kane and co. in two weeks.
Hosseini and Pouraliganji started two of Iran’s three World Cup games in Russia four years ago and their current fine form suggests they will also be the favorites to be named on the flight to Doha.
Queiroz was best known in Iran for adopting an accurate game plan against stronger opponents in the previous two World Cups, in which the holding midfielders played a pivotal role.
The Portuguese will have to select from Saeed Ezzatollahi, Omid Ebrahimi, Ahmad Nourollahi, Milad Sarlak, Ali Karimi, as well as Hajsafi and Vahid Amiri for the three-man combination in the middle of the pitch, in case he picks a 4-3-3 formation.
Should the Portuguese decide to play with a 4-2-3-1 lineup, which includes a No. 10 behind the lone striker, Karim Ansarifard and Saman Qoddous will be considered for the position, as the two delivered impressive performances in friendlies against Uruguay and Senegal in the recent international break.
There will not be much surprises in the opposition half as Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Mehdi Torabi, Ali Qolizadeh, and Amiri will be four Iranian wingers at the World Cup, given their proper knowledge of what the manager expects from his players in the wide areas, when supporting fullbacks off the ball and initiating counterattacks.
Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun will also lead the frontline for Iran in Group B, though it remains to be seen if both will be given a place in the starting XI – as they were in the 2018 World Cup, with Taremi playing on the flanks.
Azmoun started September’s 1-0 victory over Uruguay, before Taremi came on as a substitute to bag the winner.
It was the other way around in the 1-1 draw against Senegal, as Azmoun replaced Taremi to head home Iran’s equalizer.
Taremi has been in dazzling form this season – scoring 13 goals in 18 matches for Porto – and will have the edge over Azmoun, who has been dealing with a calf injury since early October, for team selection.