Tuesday saw one of the most interesting groups in the World Cup take an odd shape. Iran are at the top of Group B, benefitting greatly from an own goal by Morocco’s Aziz Bouhaddouz in the dying embers of a fairly even match. Portugal and Spain drew 3-3 because of Cristiano Ronaldo’s sheer determination, leaving the Iberian Peninsula tied for second place, while Morocco peak from the shadows, gearing up for a hefty comeback.
Going into the World Cup, this group was thought to have only two obvious favorites in Spain and Portugal. But, neither of these two overly-talented sides could top each other, making it an interesting fight for the top two spots.
Iran are superbly drilled on the defensive side of the ball. Carlos Querioz has his 11 stay compact which absorbs all pressure and pushes opposition to play out wide. They did it against Morocco, derailing Hervé Renard’s offense of short, neat passing and causing Morocco to constantly switch the ball from left to right, something that ignited little chances for the Atlas Lions’ gifted attackers.
Spain play much of the same game tactically, crafting neat passes through tight spaces, with the abundance of midfield maestro’s they have. They are very fluid in midfield, trying to confuse opposition with their shades of tiki-taka passing and quick rotations. But, if Iran are to compact the middle again, that would force Spain’s midfielders out wide, a position they are comfortable in taking up, but a position that would eliminate the threat of a Jordi Alba or Dani Carvajal (if he’s fit) or even an Isco from running in behind quicker than the defense can react.
Iran also looked throughly menacing on the counter, getting up field through their speedy front three of Alirezi Jahanbakhsh, Sardar Azmoun and Vahid Amiri. Azmoun or “The Iranian Messi” wasn’t firing on the day, having one golden chance in particular where he was through one on one the keeper and wrongly deciding to fire with power and not placement. But, the Rubin Kazan striker had 11 goals in qualifying, while also scoring 5 for Kazan this season, showing he has the quality to put the ball in the back of the net.
Portugal had a similar counter attack against Fernando Hierro’s side, a game plan that caused all sorts of issues for the Spanish. It was Ronaldo’s bursts into space down either flank that made it uncomfortable to defend because of Spain’s full-backs always advancing so far up the field. And it was uncanny how Iran seemed to do the same with Morocco’s full-backs, sending Jahanbakhsh and Amiri down both flanks with Azmoun running just behind which caught out Noureddine Amrabat and Achraf Hakimi.
Now, of course the Iranians will need to be more clinical, but if Carlos Queiroz can get his 11 to replicate that compact defensive scheme with an emphatic counter, Iran could grasp a positive result versus Spain, and for that matter Portugal because of their older-aged, slow center back pairing Pepe and Jose Fonte. If they were to grab a point from both Iberian nations, the possibility of Iran grabbing a second place spot, perhaps even topping the group, is not entirely inconceivable.
The country of Iran will now be cheering for Morocco to grind out a result up next against Portugal, while their boys can hopefully give Spain the business in a few days time. But, don’t be surprised to see what could become one of the biggest group stage upsets in history.