Kuala Lumpur: The main event is just days away from kick-off, as the continent’s top twelve teams prepare for the AFC Asian qualifiers – Road to Qatar.
Over the next few days, AFC.com break down each of the 12 nations still standing, their key men, and what it all means in the context of history as they vie for a ticket to the world’s greatest spectacle.
A true powerhouse of Asian football, the Islamic Republic of Iran is aiming for a third consecutive appearance in the FIFA World Cup and its exceptional strike force makes it one of the favorites to qualify.
Team Melli entered the June international window with their Qatar 2022 hopes hanging by a thread, but four wins and 17 goals in the span of two weeks saw a football-loving nation advance to a third straight final of the FIFA World Cup.
The equation now seems simple enough for Dragan Skočić’s camp; maintain the sparkling form that helped them defeat Hong Kong, Bahrain, Cambodia and, most importantly, Iraq, and the pressure will be on anyone in Group A to stop them.
Skočić has access to one of the finest collections of attacking talent available to any coach in Asia.
Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun lead a list of at least six top European attackers, not to mention attacking midfield or wing options such as Alireza Jahanbakhsh, young Mehdi Ghayedi and Saman Ghodos, who last week became the sixth Iranian player to appear in the English Premier League.
Look further and there is quality, experience and depth all over the pitch, with even the goalie position offering up to five options that would be good enough to start for many national teams to. across Asia.
Few people doubt the staff’s capacity, the question now is whether Skočić can find the right combination to allow the Melli team to become more than the sum of their highly regarded parts.
Undoubtedly one of the leading footballing nations in Asia, IR Iran has qualified for the FIFA World Cup five times, including four of the last six, with Korea / Japan 2002 and South Africa 2010. the only times she missed the world final this century. .
Always tough to beat, especially in Tehran’s imposing Azadi Stadium, the Melli team were particularly strong in qualifying for the 2018 final in Russia, remaining undefeated throughout their 16-game qualifying campaign and keeping nine. superb clean sheets in his 10 final round matches. .
The road to Russia, like Brazil and Germany before it, went smoothly, but the classic memory of Iran’s World Cup qualifying remains the 1997 interconfederation playoffs against Australia, where the late goals by Karim Bagheri and Khodadad Azizi silenced 85,000 fans in Melbourne and sent the visitors from France 98 on away goals.
Despite their increasingly regular visits to the FIFA World Cup finals, the nation is still waiting to qualify for the knockout stage, with its previous five appearances in the tournament ending in a group stage elimination.
Just over two years ago, he was playing AFC Champions League football for Al Gharafa. Today Mehdi Taremi is the prolific star striker at one of Europe’s most successful clubs and even at 29 it feels like he’s just getting started.
Al Gharafa’s exchange for the Portuguese Rio Ave ahead of the 2019-20 season produced 21 goals in 37 appearances in all competitions, which saw him transfer to the giant FC Porto, where he found the bottom nets 23 more times, including the UEFA Champions. Goal of the season in the league against Chelsea.
Taremi’s crucial goals against Qatar, PR China and Uzbekistan helped IR Iran advance to the final world showpiece.
As impressive as Taremi has been in recent years, Sardar Azmoun arguably remains the ace of the field in the Iranian attack.
Asian football superstar, Azmoun has scored 57 goals in 88 appearances since joining Russian Premier League champions Zenit Saint Petersburg in early 2019 and has arguably been even better for the national team, wearing his career to a sensational 37 in 55 appearances with seven goals in the second round of the Asian Qualifiers for Qatar 2022.
The Melli team’s opponents will have to do a lot if they are to find some joy against them over the next few months, but stopping their 26-year-old goal machine is looming as the number one priority.
“More of the same” is on the agenda for Taremi and Azmoun as they enter the final round of the Asian qualifiers, but Alireza Jahanbakhsh may well see the key games ahead as an opportunity to reinvent himself.
A gifted winger, Jahanbakhsh moved to Brighton’s Premier League squad after being crowned Dutch football’s top scorer in 2017-18, but form and injury issues have meant only 50 league appearances in three seasons. produced only two goals.
Back in the Netherlands, Jahanbakhsh stalled with three goals at the start of the UEFA Conference League season and millions of Iranian fans will be delighted if he can maintain that form in the weeks to come.
There isn’t an easy game at this point in the Asian qualifiers, and the Melli side will need to be at their best in their opening two matches.
They will open the final phase of their home campaign against Syria, a team they have lost only once against in the previous 28 games, but also the only team that has managed to find the back of the net and take points to Iran in Azadi. Stadium qualifiers in Russia 2018, with a 2-2 draw.
Next up is a familiar foe in Iraq, a team they had to beat in June to reach this stage, but they had failed in their previous four attempts against the Mesopotamian Lions, including the match that made them do their bags since the 2015 Asian Cup.
The survey ends at 5:00 p.m. (UTC + 8) on August 31.
Photos: AFP, AFC