FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan assesses whether Iran have any chance of causing an upset against mighty Spain and Portugal at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
It looked an impossible route to the 2018 FIFA World Cup knockout round but, with one-third of the journey completed, Iran remain firmly on course.
Of course, with all due respect to Morocco, the Group B opener last Friday was – on paper – always going to be Team Melli’s best chance of getting three points.
Still, they needed a 95th-minute own-goal from the unfortunate Aziz Bouhaddouz to snatch a 1-0 win although few would begrudge them the result, considering the battling display they produced throughout the contest.
With the ‘easy’ game over and done with, Iran will now turn their attentions to the two more-difficult tests ahead, starting with Wednesday’s meeting with 2010 champions Spain.
Wish you had been there as ASIA notched their first win at this year's #WorldCup?
— FOX Sports Asia (@FOXSportsAsia) June 15, 2018
As if coming up against the likes of Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos and Diego Costa was not already a daunting enough proposition, it is a Spanish outfit that will be going all out for victory after they began their campaign with a 3-3 draw against Portugal.
Few will be giving the Iranians any chance when they take to the field at the Kazan Arena but, firstly, that could play in their hands as they would effectively be able to play sans pressure, with the weight of expectations firmly on Spain’s shoulders.
Then, there is also the surprise factor.
Granted, in this day and age, with scouting and opposition analysis readily available and as detailed as ever, the Spanish would definitely know a thing or two about the threat players like Sardar Azmoun and Alireza Jahanbakhsh pose.
Sardar Azmoun has all the tools to be world class. Incredible speed, skill and agility at his height and size. How many strikers at his height are as good athletes as him? He has a CR7 prototype build. Also good in the air and has quick feet. One to watch in this World Cup.
— Trust the Process (@KozielloEN) June 15, 2018
Nonetheless, it is safe to say that they would still be more of an unknown quantity to Spain, while Iran would almost certainly know everything there is to know about Isco and company, and the threat that accompanies them.
Lastly, and most importantly, is the fact that Iran were nowhere near their best against Morocco.
Yes, they were well organised and disciplined throughout the 90 minutes, with defenders Morteza Pouraliganji and Ramin Rezaeian producing brilliant displays, but – going forward – Carlos Queiroz’s charges are capable of much more.
I know the World Cup is a team effort but this is really the time for Alireza #Jahanbakhsh to shine and show the world what he can do. He’s an incredibly talented and humble player- a brilliant example to kids.
If he can get into his stride who knows what we can do as a nation pic.twitter.com/43tVucP492
— Iran Football (@IranFooty) June 14, 2018
Apart from one or two dribbles, Jahanbakhsh – the top scorer in the Eredivisie last season – was fairly quiet, while Azmoun might have been amongst the goals had his first touch at the crucial moment not let him down.
Iran will also welcome back rising star Saeid Ezatolahi, who was suspended against Morocco, and – while it never seems wise to mess with a winning formula, the dynamic midfielder could prove impossible to omit.
Ezatolahi will bring a bit more discipline/organization defensively. Feel like this makes the strategic patience even better.
— David Shams (@davidshamsky) June 15, 2018
After Wednesday, Team Melli will finish their group stage campaign on June 25 against Portugal, which will pose a different but equally difficult obstacle.
While the Portuguese may not be as strong all over the park, they do have a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.
Having already put three goals past a Spain side boasting Ramos, Gerard Pique and David de Gea, Ronaldo alone will be more than a handful for Pouraliganji and the rest of the Iranian backline.
Yet, this World Cup has already been a tournament of upsets, with underdogs rising to the occasion and stunning their more-illustrious opponents.
Mexico and Iceland are just two teams who have set an example that will give Iran hope that they can pull off something spectacular.
— Gabe Tan (@gabetan13) June 15, 2018
Is it improbable that Iran could reach the Round of 16? Yes.
But, with three points already in the bag, is it impossible? Far from it.
Team Melli have already flown the flag for Asia at Russia 2018. Reaching the Round of 16 at the expense of either Spain or Portugal could just be one for the ages.