Iran’s gameplan under Carlos Queiroz during the previous two World Cup campaigns was simple: Sit deep in your own half, frustrate the opposition’s frontline, and be clinical when given a chance on the counterattacks and set pieces.
That is the way it worked out in the one-goal victory over Morocco and the 1-1 draw against Portugal in 2018 while the setbacks against heavyweights Spain and Argentina were decided by narrow margins – or in the in the latter’s case in 2014, a moment of brilliance by Lionel Messi.
When the Portuguese manager, only returning to the job in mid-September after three years, announced Iran’s 25-man squad for the upcoming finals, it was clear that he has opted to trust familiar faces for the mission in Qatar as 17 of the players were on the flight to Russia four years ago.
Still, regardless of what the outcome of Wednesday’s friendly against Tunisia behind closed doors in Doha, questions remains on who will walk out of the tunnel in the Iranian outfit for the Group B opener against England on Monday.
Alireza Beiranvand, arguably Iran’s best performer in Russia, is guaranteed a starting role between the posts, unless a back problem that the Persepolis keeper has been suffering from in recent months rules him out of contention.
In the four-man defensive block, Hossein Kan’anizadegan is all but secured a place as a center-back.
The defender formed a solid partnership with Al Ahli teammate Shoja Khalilzadeh during the final round of the World Cup qualifiers – in which Iran conceded four in 10 games under Dragan Skocic – as well as September’s 1-0 victory over Uruguay.
Queiroz could still go for another defender in the back two as Morteza Pouraliganji – with whom Kan’anizadegan paired for the 2019 Asian Cup – has been in fine form for Persepolis this season, while Majid Hosseini could also make a cut after a decent run with Turkish club Kayserispor.
The race for the right fullback position will go down to wire as Ramin Rezaeian and Sadeq Moharrami have equal chances to face either Phil Foden or Raheem Sterling.
Thoroughly ignored by Skocic, Rezaeian was the main beneficiary of Queiroz’s return to Iran’s bench and will provide attacking flair with his sublime crosses and free-kicks, not to mention he was the Portuguese’s main man for the position in the later stages of his eight-year spell in charge.
Moharrami, meanwhile, has delivered impressive performances for Dinamo Zagreb this season, most notably in the 1-0 victory over Chelsea in the Champions League, and was a regular starter in the Asian qualifiers.
Ehsan Hajsafi, playing in his third World Cup, performed well as a left-back in the 1-1 draw against Senegal in the previous international break and is tipped to start in the position after Omid Nourafkan was left out of the squad, unless the manager decides to move him to the midfield area – in which case Milad Mohammadi or Abolfazl Jalali will compete for a role against Gareth Southgate’s men.
Queiroz played with three box-to-box midfielders in a 4-3-3 formation at the 2018 World Cup and should the Portuguese stick with the same pattern, Saeed Ezatollahi will likely be the deep-lying man in front of the back four.
Queiroz will still have to choose from Ahmad Nourollahi, Saman Qoddous, Vahid Amiri, and Hajsafi for the two No. 8 roles.
Qoddous offered a new dimension to the three-man midfield against Uruguay and his unique quality in the squad as a creative player could convince Queiroz to give the Brentford man a rare start against his fellow Premier League opponents.
Alireza Jahanbakhsh will surely be one of the three frontmen, but the biggest question is as to who will take the other two spots.
Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi have been the irreplaceable men of the national team for the past five years or so, but one might wonder if the two will play alongside each other at the World Cup – as they did against Portugal four years ago with Azmoun as the lone striker and Taremi on the left.
Azmoun started the win over Uruguay, before Taremi came on as a substitute to bag the winner, and it was the other way around against Senegal, with the Leverkusen forward replacing Taremi to head home Iran’s equalizer.
Taremi has been in dazzling form this season – scoring 13 in 19 matches for Porto – and will have the edge over Azmoun, who has just recovered from a calf injury, if Queiroz leaves one out, which means Mehdi Torabi or Ali Qolizadeh could occupy the left-flank spot.
Having all said all that, Queiroz has proved to be full of surprises when it comes to team selections and tactical approaches, and the occasion against Harry Kane and co. is no expectation.