In-form Iran could cause a stir at Russia 2018

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan looks at why Iran – who have won 27 out of 38 games since the last FIFA World Cup – should not be underestimated at Russia 2018.

With Monday’s 1-0 win over Venezuela, Iran are now unbeaten in their last ten games and building well ahead of next summer’s FIFA World Cup.

Team Melli were the third team to seal their berth at next summer’s World Cup, behind hosts Russia and five-time champions Brazil, after securing qualification back in June.

The benefit of qualifying as early as they did is extra time to prepare and get things right ahead of appearing on the biggest stage in world football.

Impressively though, Iran are doing all that while still churning out positive results.

Since a 1-0 friendly defeat to Iraq back in March, they have not tasted defeat in ten matches and have notched seven wins along the way.

Discounting that match as a non-competitive fixture, the last time Iran lost a game which mattered was all the way back at the 2014 World Cup, considering their 2015 AFC Asian Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of Iraq in the penalty shootout.

To put that into context, since they lost 3-1 to Bosnia-Herzegovina in Bahia on June 26, 2014, the Iranians have won 27 matches, drawn nine (including that shootout loss) and lost just two (both friendlies against Sweden and Iraq).

Among these positive results are a 1-1 draw against Russia, triumphs over Montenegro and Togo, as well as their most-recent back-to-back victories over Panama and Venezuela, the former of whom are also preparing for a maiden World Cup appearance.

Of course, there is the argument that results do not really matter at this point. More importantly, coaches should explore different tactics and test previously-unexposed players, all working towards the end goal of peaking next summer.

True. And that is most likely the present manifesto in the camps of Japan, Korea Republic and Saudi Arabia, Asia’s other World Cup representatives who have not enjoyed similar joy recently.

But there is also the matter of breeding confidence and developing a winning mentality which cannot be undervalued.

Team Melli are now used to tasting victory and will do whatever it takes to keep this winning feeling going.

Iran sealed their World Cup spot with a 2-0 win over Uzbekistan in June

While the World Cup draw will only take place on December 1, based on the seedings, a possible group that could be thrown up is Russia, Mexico, Iran and Panama.

From results over the past month or so, we already know what that would mean for the Iranians. Four points from two games, which is more than most teams could ask for.

Carlos Queiroz deserves all the credit that has been thrown his way recently, for getting Iran to where they are right now: a well-organised, enterprising outfit who clearly know what they are doing on the pitch.

Nonetheless, there is also genuine star quality in the team and it should come as no surprise that a significant number of Iranians are now plying their trade in Europe, including big names like Sardar Azmoun, Karim Ansarifard and Alireza Jahanbakhsh.

Iran are no strangers to the World Cup, having played in four previous editions, but are perhaps best remembered for their exploits at France 1998, when they beat United States with a team boasting legends Ali Daei, Mehdi Mahdavikia and Karim Bagheri.

It is not unthinkable – likely in fact – that players like Azmoun, Ansarifard and Jahanbakhsh will one day be mentioned in the same breath as your Ali Daeis, Javad Nekounams and Ali Karimis.

That day could just come a lot sooner if Team Melli rise to the occasion in Russia next year.