Iran were simply stunning en-route to qualifying for the World Cup, conceding just five goals in 18 matches.
Indeed, they were so dominant that they were the third team to book their tickets to the summer spectacle, after hosts Russia and record champions Brazil.
And not even seemingly being thrown to the lions in the heinous-looking ‘Group of Death’ alongside 2010 champions Spain and reigning European champions Portugal will be enough to quell the excitement of an expectant nation from spilling out into the Gulf.
They did their 81 million inhabitants proud on the way to Russia with a campaign built on a stingy defence – something which will be severely tested in the group stage.
Remarkably, they qualified from the third and final round in Asia without conceding a single goal, a 2-0 win against Uzbekistan last June seeing them book their passage.
It wasn’t until a final day 2-2 draw with Syria their defence was finally breached.
Goals were hard to come by, with just 10 scored in 10 final phase games, although they were prolific before that, netting 26 times in the eight group second stage (3.25 goals per game) while again stout at the back – conceding just three.
They finished a commanding seven points clear of South Korea with 11 goals from Sardar Azmoun, Iran’s next great hope, seeing him finish joint-second highest in the individual scoring charts alongside Australia veteran Tim Cahill.
The 23-year-old has netted 23 goals in his first 32 caps. Carlos Queiroz’s men are a well rounded squad with players who have plenty of experience playing outside their own country.
Captain Masoud Shojaei and attacker Karim Ansarifard have excelled in Greece, Reza Ghoochannejhad and the emerging Alireza Jahanbakhsh doing the same in the Netherlands.
One surprise came last month when Queiroz decided to cut veteran former captain Jelal Hosseini.
What also doesn’t bode well for Iran is their dismal recent record at World Cups.
They have only won one of their 12 previous games – a 2-1 win over the USA in 1998.
A player not easily kept out of the headlines. He caused a stir when he was banned by FIFA for four months in September after being found in breach of his contract, having returned to Persepolis despite agreeing to move to Turkey’s Caykur Rizespor.
Scored eight goals in qualifying and is likely to form a key striking partnership with Azmoun.
Supremely experienced, the ex-Portugal and Real Madrid manager has been in charge of Iran for the last seven – often tumultuous – years. His policy of introducing players from the Iranian diaspora has proved key to their progress, making him the first man to qualify them for successive World Cups.
The 33-year-old midfielder represents the modern face of this Iran team, thus far playing in five different countries for nine different clubs. This tally also includes Sharjah in the Arabian Gulf League. His ability to add elegance to a workmanlike team is invaluable.
Not only is the Rubin Kazan striker one to keep an eye on when watching Iran, he’s also a player many of Europe’s big teams will be watching closely. He has repeatedly been linked with a move to the big time, with Arsenal, Juventus and Valencia all keen.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– Touted as the heir to Iran goalscoring icon Ali Daei, Azmoun scored a mesmeric 23 goals in his first 32 Iran caps, placing him as the country’s fifth-highest scorer of all-time – and he’s just 23
– Iran refused to participate in the qualifiers for the 1986 World Cup because of having to play on neutral ground
– Azmoun still has some way to go to reach the No1 spot though. Daei is the leading goalscorer in the history of international football, with 109 goals from 149 caps
73 DEF 72 MID 74 ATT
World cups competed at
5 (First in 1978)
World cup record
P12, W1, D3, L8
P18, W12, D6
A. Beyranvand (Persepolis), R. Mazaheri (Zob Ahan), A. Abedzadeh (Maritimo).
M. Hosseini (Esteghlal), R. Rezaeian (Ostende), M. Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), M. Pouraliganji (Alsaad), P. Montazeri (Esteghlal), M. Mohammadi
(Akhmat Grozny), R. Cheshmi (Esteghlal), E. Hajsafi (Olympiacos).
S. Ezatollahi (Amkar Perm), M. Shojaei (AEK Athens), M. Torabi (Saipa), O. Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), K. Ansarifard (Olympiacos).
A. Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar), M. Taremi (Al Gharafa), S. Azmoun (Rubin Kazan), R. Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen), S. Ghoddos (Ostersunds), A. Dejagah (Nottingham Forest), V. Amiri (Persepolis).
The odds are stacked against them but that won’t bother Iran or their fans, who will head to Russia with huge optimism but no real hope
Nigeria keep up their habit of qualifying for the World Cup, having appeared in five of the last six editions, and on this occasion they’ve done so in some style. Having come up against Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria in their qualifying group, they booked their tickets to Russia with a game to spare.
In fact, they only lost one game in the qualifiers and that was a 3-0 result FIFA awarded Algeria after Nigeria fielded an ineligible player in Shehu Abdullahi during the 1-1 draw. Abdullahi failed to serve a one-game ban after receiving two yellow cards in the preceding qualifying games.
It’s their victory over Argentina – who will accompany them in Group D – in a friendly earlier this year though that has been most impressive. After going 2-0 down against the South American giants, the Super Eagles recovered in stunning fashion to secure a 4-2 win on Russian soil.
Under Gernot Rohr who took charge of the national team last year, Nigeria have turned a corner after failing to qualify for the previous two African Cup of Nations tournaments. The German tactician has incorporated several new young players and in doing so has managed to mould the team into a vibrant counter-attacking unit.
The searing pace and direct running of Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses in particular is key to the threat they pose, giving their attack the desired zip and ingenuity to hurt the opposition. The frontmen are ably supported by an energetic midfield packed with ball-winners.
Their defenders, while inexperienced, are capable and have forged a formidable back-line. However, it’s the composure and clever distribution of their skipper John Obi Mikel which makes the team tick. Since Rohr’s appointment, Nigeria have also grown into a tactically flexible team.
While favouring either a 4-3-3 or 4-2- 3-1 system, they utilised a 4-4-1-1 formation effectively in a 1-0 friendly win over Poland while their remarkable victory over Argentina was procured via the means of a flat 3-5-2 system. Nigeria have regularly participated in the tournament but they still have much to prove as their win over Bosnia in Brazil was their first at a World Cup since 1998.
The Leicester City man has been a mainstay in the side throughout their qualification campaign and beyond. He made more tackles than any other player in the Premier League this season and it’s that ball-winning ability which makes him pivotal to the counter-attacking system.
The 64-year-old has been a calming influence for the Super Eagles. The former Bordeaux coach has brought a clear direction and some much needed stability to the side after they had gone through seven managerial changes since the World Cup in Brazil.
John Obi Mikel
The Mikel that played it safe – and largely sideways – at Chelsea and the one which captains his nation are two very contrasting players. His range of passing comes to the fore with Nigeria as he dictates play and taps into his attacking instincts when venturing forward.
He has impressed on occasion at Arsenal but on the international stage, he has been a key player. Nigeria’s system suits the 22-year-old perfectly. He’s responded well to being afforded a prominent role and is making a name for himself as more than just Jay-Jay Okocha’s nephew.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– In 2010, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan banned the national team from competing for two years due to embarrassment from poor performances.
– Ahmed Musa is the only Nigerian player to score more than one goal in a World Cup match.
– Sani Kaita remains the only player to be sent off for Nigeria at a World Cup – back in their maiden appearance in 1994.
– 4.2, tackles per game in the Premier League for Ndidi.
72 DEF 76 MID 75 ATT
World Cups competed at
6 (First in 1994)
World Cup record
P18, W5, D3, L10
Round of 16 (1994, 1998 & 2014)
P8, W5, D2, L1
Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruna), Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United).
William Troost-Ekong, Abdullahi Shehu (both Bursaspor), Tyronne Ebuehi (Benfica), Elderson Echiejile (Cercle Brugge), Bryan Idowu (Amkar Perm), Chidozie Awaziem (Porto), Leon Balogun (Brighton), Kenneth Omeruo (Chelsea).
Mikel John Obi (Tianjin Teda), Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester), Oghenekaro Etebo (CD Feirense), John Ogu (Hapoel Be’er Sheva), Joel Obi (Torino, Italy).
Ahmed Musa, Kelechi Iheanacho (both Leicester), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), Simeon Nwankwo (Crotone).
They face a tough group where Argentina and Croatia are favourites. difficult to see them making it into the knockout stages.
Decimated by injuries, darkened by off-pitch conflicts and cocooned from truly elite-competition, the mood is immensely gloomy for the host nation.
They have yet to progress past the group stages of a World Cup post Soviet Union and are also one of the lowest ranked teams in the competition.
As you can imagine, expectations are low. Indeed, the writing is on the wall, legible to all even if written in Cyrillic.
Defensively, Cherchesov has swapped to a back three but serious knee injuries for Viktor Vasin (CSKA) and Georgi Dzhikiya (Spartak Moscow) – the two youngsters brought in to replace Sergei Ignashevich (who has returned to the national team fold after retirement) and Vasily Berezutski – have left them painfully exposed.
They are short of goals, too. Aleksandr Kokorin was in rich goalscoring form plundering 19 times for Zenit before a knee injury ruled him out of the for Stanislav Cherchesov’s men is simply to get through to the knockouts.
Only once has a host nation suffered the indignity of failing to qualify from the group stages – South Africa in 2010 – but with Egypt serious contenders to progress alongside Uruguay, Russia are at risk of national embarrassment.
After the high of a Euro 2008 semi-final run, they have endured extreme lows since and ambitious talk of a quarter-final or last-four berth have faded entirely.
And to make matters worse one of their finer talents, Igor Denisov has been exiled having fallen out with Cherchesov at Dynamo Moscow, forming quite the toxic backdrop.
Another player that was left out of recent squads for the same reason is Artem Dzyuba after they had a conflict following the Confederations Cup, although the forward is expected to feature on home soil.
Their hopes lie with the technically gifted midfield operators Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Golovin from CSKA alongside twins Aleksei and Anton Miranchuk from Lokomotiv Moscow.
Of course, Igor Akinfeev remains a pillar of strength in goal, though even he has been prone to high-profile errors, notably against South Korea four years ago.
But with a squad dominated by players who largely play domestically, and qualification secured automatically as hosts, Russia is a team ring fenced from facing elite-level competition.
Ultimately, the forecast for them is somewhat akin to their winters – bitter disappointment.
An artistic playmaker, Dzagoev shot to prominence at Euro 2012, finishing as the tournament’s joint-top scorer. However, injuries have disarmed him and now aged 27 he carries immense expectation to perform.
A squad battered by injuries has Cherchesov on the back foot even before the tournament opener with Saudi Arabia. A defence-first policy has created a dull outfit and his penchant for three at the back has been scrutinised.
The goalkeeper was central to Russia’s remarkable Euro 2008 semi-final berth and while
he’s still held in high regard domestically, the now 32-year-old’s decline has mirrored that of his country as he’s failed to push on.
Russia’s finest talent, the 22-year-old has been in sparkling form for CSKA Moscow this season. He is a contrast to the dull nature of this team, a creative two-way player equally as strong in the tackle as he is sparking attacks.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– Three key players have suffered severe knee injuries (Aleksandr Kokorin, Viktor Vasin and Georgy Dzhikiya)
– 10 years since Russia made it out of the group stage of any tournament
– Russia are the second lowest ranked team heading into their home World Cup
70 DEF 78 MID 76 ATT
World Cups competed at
11 (7 as Sovet Union)
World Cup record
P40, W17, D8, L15
Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Vladimir Gabulov (Club Brugge), Andrey Lunyov (Zenit St Petersburg).
Defenders: Vladimir Granat, Fyodor Kudryashov (both Rubin Kazan), Ilya Kutepov (Spartak Moscow), Andrei Semyonov (Akhmat Grozny), Sergei Ignashevich, Mario Fernandes (both CSKA Moscow), Igor Smolnikov (Zenit St Petersburg).
Midfielders: Yury Gazinsky (Krasnodar), Aleksandr Golovin, Alan Dzagoev (both CSKA Moscow), Aleksandr Yerokhin, Yuri Zhirkov, Daler Kuzyaev (all Zenit St Petersburg), Roman Zobnin, Aleksandr Samedov (both Spartak Moscow), Anton Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal).
Forwards: Artem Dzyuba (Arsenal Tula), Aleksei Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Fyodor Smolov (Krasnodar).
An ugly blend of a tepid attack, fragile defence, inconsistent goalkeeping and a dull style means expectations are extremely low. Getting out of the group stage would be a considerable success.