If preparing for a major tournament meant finding ways to undermine your chances of success then the Iran Football Federation (IFF) has mastered the art of preparation. Team Melli had played two international friendlies since the World Cup. During that time, three months were wasted due to protracted discussions between the IFF, the country’s Ministry of Sports and Carlos Queiroz over a contract extension for the Portuguese head coach. Eventually ink was put to the paper by all concerned. Nevertheless, Queiroz managed to mastermind 3 narrow victories in Group C, and a place in the last 8, where Iran fell short to Iraq in a controversy filled penalty shoot-out defeat. Iranians misery was prolonged by an appeal against the presence of an Iraqi player who had failed a doping test only months earlier. As predicted, the result of the match was not over-turned.
Iran’s major preparation for the Asian Cup had come in the shape of South Korea, at the Azadi Stadium in November, after the visitors agreed not to charge the hosts a fee and, in a subsequent pre-tournament friendly against Iraq where Queiroz put out, what was thought to be, a reserve side. Team Melli bettered the Koreans thanks to substitute Sardar Azmoun’s first international goal. The match was largely dominated by the Koreans just as most of the recent match-ups between the two sides. But Team Melli’s counter-attacking game seems to be the Koreans Achilles heel as they took another Korean scalp. The pattern of that game is mirrored anytime Iran takes on any opponent of decent quality.
Similarly, in the second friendly game, Azmoun scored the winner after he broke free from the last defender and coolly slotted the ball into the goal with the outside of his right boot. More importantly, Queiroz gave first starts to Morteza Pouraliganji, a defensive midfielder playing center back for the first time, and Vouria Ghafouri, a right-sided player from Sepahan. Both would go on to start at the Asian Cup. They would be joined by the impressive Azmoun from the second group game onwards.
Queiroz’s Functional and Robust Team Melli
Carlos Queiroz has created a mentally robust, highly structured and functional counter-attacking side, starting largely in a 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 formation. His approach is somewhat criticized by certain domestic observers, who include Iranian club managers or ex-managers such as Amir Ghalenoei and Hamid Derakhshan, managers of Tehran’s “Big Two” Esteghlal and Persepolis, who advocate for an Iranian in charge. His side had not conceded a goal, at the Asian Cup, until being reduced to 10 men against Iraq. Queiroz has largely stayed loyal to the older generation of players, who have formed the backbone of the national side for the better part of the last decade. Initially he did not feel younger replacements had the quality to come into play, without hurting the team’s chances in the short-term. However, the Portuguese, always pragmatic, having witnessed dips in the physical conditions of a few of his older regulars, was not afraid to make tough decisions when he felt them in the interest of the side. This was illustrated by the 11th hour decision to install a new goalkeeper, Alireza Haghighi, with almost no international experience, at the World Cup. Similar decisions have now taken place with Pouraliganji,
Ghafouri and Azmoun, who scored a wonderful Bergkamp-esque winner against Qatar. Others such as Vahid Amiri and Soroosh Rafeie also figured at the Asian Cup.
If one took a step back and objectively assessed the work the Portuguese has done, it would be hard to fault him. From arranging friendly matches thanks to his contacts in different countries (he recently convinced a few South African club sides to put out sides against Team Melli during its training camp in the country), to choosing the team’s base, arranging flights as well as handling his own role and responsibilities, which included qualifying for the World Cup and putting on relatively acceptable performances, Quieroz has had his work cut out in Iran. Ultimately, his legacy will depend a lot upon whether he will be the man given the task of continuing to rebuild the side. He has already given a sneak peek of how he sees the future panning out with the introduction of a younger generation of players during the Asian Cup. At the same time, no other manager in the history of Team Melli has received the sort of support and faith that the squad has given the Portuguese.
One Eye on Today, Other on Future
Queiroz had an aging group of players at the World Cup, and took most of the key members of that squad again to the Asian Cup. During the Korea friendly match, Iran started with 6 players over the age of 30, as well as two others who would be over-30 by the time the next World Cup comes along in 2018. A major rebuilding job is long overdue. In comparison, South Korea has named only 2 players over the age of 30 in its Asian Cup Squad, whilst Japan only 4, including a goalkeeper. To be fair, Queiroz introduced a number of younger squad players for the Asian Cup, a decision which was seen as unlikely only one month
On one hand, it is understandable that Queiroz has deferred the rebuilding process, to a degree, preferring to focus on immediate results, as Iranian football lacks a long-term blue-print to follow, whilst the manager knows that his future in the job depends on results gained due to the nature of the press scrutiny and domestic “expert” critics. On the other hand, Team Melli desperately needs the injection of new blood if it’s to progress. The backbone of the side is well past its best and the team lacks genuine pace and incisive creativity. The introduction of Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who appeared briefly, and Sardar Azmoun, who starred at the tournament, would change that to a degree going forward. Team Melli is currently far better being the underdog against stronger opposition such as Japan or Korea. Against Bahrain, after an initial 25 minutes in which Bahrain dominated, Iran began to settle down and its superior set of players made the difference at the end. Both goals came from set pieces. Against Qatar, a tense and even first half was followed by a moment of magic by Azmoun before Iran settled for the lead and began dropping deeper, inviting Qatari pressure. Team Melli held out but the final 30 minutes was nail-biting. Iran was dominated virtually from start to finish against the UAE but its defence kept the Emiratis at bay without giving away any clear-cut opportunities. Eventually, a final 10 minute spell of pressure resulted in a winning goal, from another set piece, through dropped striker Reza Ghoochannehjad, who had come off the bench. Against Iraq, Team Melli was as adventurous as it has been in recent times. It dominated most of the first half and was good value for a 1 goal lead through Ghafouri’s pin-point cross and Azmoun’s bullet header. However, an inexplicable red card for left back Mehrdad Pouladi changed the whole complexion of the match. Iran surprisingly lost their shape for the first 15 minutes of the second half and allowed Iraq back into it. A back and forth marathon ended up 3-3 at the end of extra time and the lottery of penalty kicks went the way of the Iraqis.
What Happens Next?
A number of players will probably bid goodbye to the national team in the coming days. Captain Nekounam was in tears after the penalty shoot-out. At 34, he won’t take part in another Asian Cup and shouldn’t figure at the World Cup, were Iran to qualify. Teymourian, 31, may still have an outside chance to play at the next World Cup but his role must be reduced. Finding replacements for these two, who have formed the heart and soul of the side for almost a decade will be a huge task for Queiroz. However, their lack of mobility, relative to their younger days, has also meant that Team Melli played a slow-paced possession game for many years until Queiroz changed the style in the run-up to the final 3 World Cup Qualifiers in 2013. Masoud Shojaei, one of Queiroz’ favorite players, as well as Heydari should both walk away from the team now too. A major question mark remains over Jalal Hosseini’s immediate role with the side. At 32, he is not the oldest center back out there. He proved it by forming a great partnership with Pouraliganji, who may end of in defensive midfield in the position vacated by the captain. At the same time, the likes of Ashkan Dejagah, arguably Iran’s star player during the first two matches, Pouladi, Ghoochannehjad, the newly introduced and impressive Ghafouri will all be on the wrong
side of 30 when the World Cup starts.
On brighter notes, Amiri looked good as a left winger, Rafeie has the potential to replace Shojaei, whilst the likes of Azmoun and Jahanbakhsh have already shown their worth to the team. Azmoun, 20, is already showing signs that he is heir to legendary striker Ali Daei in a position that few Asian teams have quality within. He is surely destined for bigger things in European football too. The Dutch-based Jahanbakhsh, 21, has had exceptional form with NEC Nijmegen this season. He has scored 8 goals and assisted another 12 in only 20 starts in the Jupiler League. Both of the youngsters are likely to play an integral role as Team Melli continues the rebuilding process.Haghighi in goal has continued to prove to be a safe pair of hands although the highly-rated Alireza Beiranvand, another Naft player, who made his debut before the tournament started, will surely challenge him over the next couple of years. Injured defender Pejman Montazeri, only 31, may come back into contention too.
Going Forward with Queiroz
Across the board, a semi-final spot for Team Melli was seen as acceptable by most people back home. Iran fell short, again on penalty kicks, as well as in controversial circumstances, which probably aids Queiroz. The Portuguese took pre-emptive strikes against some of his critics including Ghalenoei and Derakhshan after the Iraq defeat. He also highlighted that to take Iran to the next level, one which includes attacking football, the IFF needs to play a more instrumental role. His assertion is not groundless. All of Iran’s opponents had played around 15 matches in the run-up to the tournament and the link-up between their players was evidence of better preparations. Objectively, Iran is yet to master its counter-attacking game and largely benefited from set pieces and second ball recoveries in the final third. On the flip side, its defensive side of the game makes it difficult to create many clear-cut opportunities against it. Needless to say, Team Melli has failed to become Asian champions since 1976. However, Iran has not lost in 90 minutes at the Asian Cup since 1996, when they lost to this year’s Quarter Finals opponents, Iraq, again.
If Queiroz is able to get better link-up play, involving more support players for the lone striker, during transition from defence to counter attack, then Team Melli may be able to add a crucial ingredient to its game. Either way, he is the right man to continue the work that he started almost 5 years ago. He has also shown that his pragmatism was a necessity and that he has the flexibility to make changes when it benefits the team. One of the Portuguese’s major achievements has been the team spirit and camaraderie that he has instilled, at a level which had never existed in Team Melli previously, at least not in the modern era. This achievement must not be underestimated in polarized Iran. The next few years will be an important period for Team Melli, culminating in the 2018 World Cup, as the last surviving members of a generation that included the likes of Mehdi Mahdavikia and Ali Karimi and others are phased out from the national team. Replacing them will be a tough task and the procedure must be handled with care. At the same time, expectations will surely include a more adventurous style of football. Queiroz has already shown that he’s the safest hands to navigate such circumstances.
Rubin Kazan’s Sardar Azmoun was 20 by the time the Asian Cup kicked off in Australia. His name may have been an unfamiliar one outside Russia and Iran. But the ethnic Turkmen made sure he would be well-known to Asian audiences, before the tournament was done, with a brilliant solo goal against Qatar. So quick has his sudden rise been that there had been widespread disappointment in his football-crazy homeland when he missed the cut for Team Melli’s World Cup squad for Brazil. Whilst Azmoun has been labelled the “Iranian Messi”, his style of play places him in a far more advanced orthodox target man role than the little Argentine.
Born on January 1, 1995, in the small town of Gonbad-e-Kavus in Iran, Azmoun inherited an athletic appetite from an early age. When he was 13 he had a choice to make, one that would define his professional career. Azmoun could have chosen volleyball, a sport he also excelled in, as his father was a former Iranian international. But he chose to make his own in-roads into football instead. Soon enough, after going through the ranks of provincial clubs in Golestan, Sepahan Esfahan, credited with having one of the best developmental academies in the country, came calling.
In early 2012, Azmoun, who had just turned 17, was called up Iran’s U-21 side for the 2012 Commenwealth of Independent States tournament in Russia. It was there that he caught the eye of Rubin scouts as he became top scorer with 7 goals in 6 starts. Within a year, and before having kicked a ball for Sepahan, he was back on a plane to Russia. He had agreed to join Rubin Kazan, rejecting offers from Persepolis and Esteghlal, and breaking the long-held trend of young Iranian footballers being enticed by Tehran’s two biggest clubs. Azmoun has highlighted the influence of legendary Rubin manager, Kurban Berdyev, in convincing him to move to Russia at such a young age.
Within 7 months he had become the youngest Iranian to ever play in European competition after making his Rubin debut in the Europa League in the summer of 2013. He also scored his first club goal in only his second club appearance in the same competition. On his league debut, against Anzhi, he came on as a substitute in the final 20 minutes and scored a goal and made another during a 5-1 rout. The future looked bright for the young Iranian forward.
By the end of his first full season in Russia, Azmoun had scored 5 goals from 9 starts and assisted a further 3 goals. He had become an established member of the first team. He would find himself strongly linked to Arsenal, Liverpool and Juventus. There were even suggestions, from his camp, that a deal with Arsenal was almost signed. But nothing panned out. However, at the end of the season, Azmoun received a double blow. Firstly he would no longer be working with his mentor Berdyev who departed the club and secondly he would miss out on Iran’s World Cup squad, having made his debut in the run-up to the tournament.
The 2014/15 season has been a mixed one for him. He’s largely figured as a substitute for Rubin, having not yet convinced his new manager Rinat Bilyaletdinov, and scored only once. However, he’s begun to play a more regular role under Carlos Queiroz. Azmoun is adept playing off the striker or cutting in from the wings but a growth spurt over the last 12 or so months has given him a taller frame which has pushed him into a more advanced central role for both club and country. He scored the winning goal against Korea in a friendly in November, then the winner against Iraq in a pre-tournament friendly. Having come off the bench against Bahrain during Iran’s first group game, he went on to start against Gulf Cup champions Qatar in the second match. He capped a good performance with a brilliantly taken, Dennis Bergkamp-like, goal. He went on to retain his spot for the final group game against UAE but was far too isolated and could not make an impact before coming off for eventual goalscorer Reza Goochannehjad, the man who had lost his place to the youngster.
Whilst it was not expected that Azmoun would start during the Asian Cup, as Ghoochannehjad had taken the only starting berth in attack, it was predicted that he may end up starting as the tournament progressed as he offers more unpredictability as well as a stronger physical presence. These predictions have come true. He’s also surprisingly good in the air despite not yet bulking up, and scored his maiden international goal via a header against South Korea, an opponent who Iran may face again in the semi-finals. Azmoun has got two good feet and Queiroz has turned to the Rubin forward for his pace and presence up front. It’s an important period in the youngster’s career as a good Asian Cup may result in re-igniting his club career, probably away from Rubin. His father has recently been quoted, stating that he’s working on getting Azmoun regular playing time in another Russian club on loan as a spring-board towards moving to a bigger European club in the summer. Another goal or two like the one he scored against Qatar during the rest of the Asian Cup may be a catalyst towards that move.