News ID: 325494
Published: 0954 GMT November 20, 2022

Stage is set: Iran to begin quest for World Cup history

Stage is set: Iran to begin quest for World Cup history
MEHDI BOLOURIAN/IRNA

Iranian players and coaching staff prepare for a training session in Al Rayyan, Qatar, on November 19, 2022.

Sports Desk

The final episode of Iran’s 2022 World Cup campaign gets underway on Monday in Al Rayyan’s Khalifa International Stadium where Carlos Queiroz’s men take on England in Group B.

With the current squad widely regarded among the finest generation of Iranian footballers, and Queiroz bringing back his magical touch to the bench, the Asian team will be looking to progress beyond the group stage of the competition for the first time in six attempts.

It has been a rollercoaster three years for Iran since a first-day away victory over Hong Kong in the preliminary round of the Asian qualifiers in September 2019.

Faced with an early exit of the road to Qatar – following back-to-back defeats to Bahrain and Iraq – Iran parted ways with Belgian manager Marc Wilmots, bringing in Dragan Skocic in February 2020.

The Croatian led the national team to four successive wins on the return to the campaign – after an eight-month hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic – and a place in the final group phase of the qualifiers.

The run in the group was a totally different story for Skocic and his men, who won six in seven to secure a World Cup spot with three games to spare.

Skocic thought he had done enough to deserve Iran’s job for the finals but the country’s Football Federation had other ideas.

Croatian’s lack of control over a star-studded dressing room, coupled with doubts about his tactical acumen for a tournament of World Cup magnitude, eventually convinced the Iranian football governing body, which had Mehdi Taj return to the fold as the new chairman, to give Skocic his marching orders in September.

In came Queiroz as the messiah figure to steer Iran all the way to the promised land of the last-16 round.

In fact, it could have already been a mission accomplished for the Portuguese four years ago, had it not been for Mehdi Taremi missing a stoppage-time sitter against Portugal on the final day of the group phase, which saw Iran come short of a single point for a knockout berth.

Queiroz has proved to be the master of devising an accurate defensive gameplan against relatively stronger opponents and with an in-form Taremi, who has bagged 13 goals in 19 games for Porto this season, in the team – alongside Sardar Azmoun and Alireza Jahanbakhsh – the Portuguese has every reason to fancy a decent result against the European powerhouse.

The good news for Queiroz is that Azmoun has recovered from a from a calf injury he sustained in October and will be available for selection on Monday.

Queiroz has been best known for getting his troops on board in challenging circumstances, and while the Iranian players have been pushed by the foreign media with questions about the protests in the country, perhaps his most daunting task to date will be to keep players’ heads clear from off-field issues.

Jahanbakhsh insisted in a press conference last week that he and his teammates are solely focused on their campaign in Qatar, while Taremi on Saturday said: “We’re here to bring joy and happiness for the Iranian people. That would be the biggest achievement for us.”

England, meanwhile, steps into the tournament after a superb run in the European Championship in 2021, which ended with a shootout heartbreak against Italy in the final, and possess a formidable frontline in captain Harry Kane, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka, and Marcus Rashford.

However, disappointing performances in the UEFA Nations League – including a 4-0 humiliation against Hungary in September – has left manager Gareth Southgate under pressure ahead of the tournament.

 

   
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