Cristiano Ronaldo has not yet wobbled under the weight of this reliant Portugal side and he will be called upon again to find inspiration against Iran and secure safe passage from Group B.
Morocco picked at the seams of an aging Portuguese defence and though Iran do not have the same attacking prowess, when needing a goal last week, they gave powerhouses Spain an almighty scare in defeat.
TEACHER AND PUPIL’S BAD BLOOD
Few coaches know Ronaldo better than Carlos Queiroz and the Iran coach will be relishing the prospect of pushing some particular buttons again.
Queiroz was instrumental in bringing his then-teenage countryman to Old Trafford when he was assistant coach of Manchester United and, save a brief and unsuccessful tenure at Real Madrid, nurtured him for five years in England. Such was the special relationship, Ruud van Nistelrooy fell out with Ronaldo after mocking him for it in training.
The special relationship broke down completely, though, when Ronaldo blamed Queiroz, who left to manage Portugal in 2008, for their inglorious round-of-16 defeat to Spain two years later.
Their connection, at least in public, has never recovered, however, Queiroz earlier this year declared his former charge was the best player in the world when posed the familiar Ronaldo or Messi conundrum.
It’ll be interesting to see whether they embrace at some point on Monday night – though Ronaldo should be braced for some rough treatment from Iran.
RONALDO THE SHERIFF NEEDS A DEPUTY
Ronaldo will have bigger problems on his mind than Queiroz once the game kicks off. The world is in his thrall with Lionel Messi and Neymar yet to announce themselves in Russia.
Invariably there’ll be one game during the course of the tournament, or even one half, where he doesn’t come through. The next men up, though, are staring up at him a long, long way below.
It shouldn’t be the case. For the first time in a long time Portugal have talented young players around Ronaldo who should be relishing the comparative lack of attention they are receiving by World Cup defences.
Bernardo Silva grew into an important component of Manchester City’s Premier League title-winning squad, Goncalo Guedes was one of the loan stories of the season with Valencia and Andre Silva has always fired for Portugal if not AC Milan. Bruno Fernandes too had a fine season for Sporting Lisbon. Their ages: 23, 21, 22 and 23 respectively.
So far Bruno and Bernardo are routinely failing to beat the first man and stretch defences out wide while Fernando Santos has persisted playing Guedes up front over natural striker Silva when he is more at home on the flanks.
The stage is set, gentleman. Even Ronaldo will need help to get to the final act.
CUTTING OUT THE MIDDLE MEN
Joao Moutinho, and to a lesser extent William Carvalho, have performed admirably for Portugal in midfield but their nation’s soft underbelly is worryingly still there for all to see.
Both need to be extra vigilant when shielding their glacial centre-backs, Pepe and Jose Fonte, as they can leave nothing to chance.
Pepe and Fonte are good enough at close quarters but if any player gets a clear run at them – like Hakim Ziyech and Co found out with Morocco – then it’s cross-your-fingers time if you’re a Portugal fan.
Portugal’s 4-4-2 will always be susceptible to a packed midfield, especially when the wingers are not firing, and Iran will bring just that.
Saeid Ezatolahi was the returning hero in a spirited display against Spain but Vahid Amiri and Omid Ebrahimi were also stubborn in defeat. The question is whether they’ll have enough guile on the ball to break down their opposing duo. This could be an attritional one.
FIFA is to consider making a change to their concussion protocols following Morocco’s decision to play Nordin Amrabat just five days after suffering a concussion.
The Watford winger suffered a concussion in the African side’s opening game against Iran on but then played in the second Group B match against Portugal on Wednesday, five days after that head injury.
This was strongly criticised by brain injury experts, though, who pointed out that Amrabat should have taken at least a week off, as per FIFA’s ‘return to play’ guidelines.
Amrabat started the game wearing a rugby-style scrum cap but discarded it after just 16 minutes.
And Michel d’Hooghe, head of FIFA’s medical committee, has voiced his disapproval of Morocco’s handling of the case and suggested sanctions may be brought in to discourage a repeat.
“When I saw what happened, I was not just surprised but disappointed and very angry,” d’Hooghe told the Mail on Sunday.
“All the team doctors know very well what should happen, but Morocco’s behaviour was in defiance of our guidelines.
“We though that with these guidelines we had enough power, but it seems now that this is not the case.
“Perhaps we need to go one step further and impose sanctions if the guidelines are not followed.
“I am convinced that the majority of team doctors take this very seriously, but now we face a new problem thanks to the Moroccan medical delegation.”
Cristiano Ronaldo has not yet wobbled under the weight of this reliant Portugal side and he will be called upon once more to find inspiration against Iran and secure safe passage from Group B.
Morocco picked at the seams of an aging Portuguese defence and though Iran do not have the same attacking prowess, when needing a goal last week, they gave mighty Spain an almighty scare in defeat.
We look at some of the key match-ups below – and it’s not all about Mr Ronaldo.
SARDAR AZMOUN v CRISTIANO RONALDO
When Ronaldo almost broke the sound barrier with his vicious header early on against Morocco, it seemed he was about to run away with the Golden Boot.
But despite scoring his fourth goal of the tournament in the fourth minute of the game, Real Madrid’s living legend could not force another – no matter how hard he tried.
Indeed this was vintage Ronaldo in snapshot form rather than his 90-minute masterclass against Spain. The 33-year-old wasted two inviting free-kicks – whereas he stuck it on the postage stamp on that fantastic opening night – and took six shots for the return of just that one goal.
However, with Bernardo Silva and Goncalo Guedes proving calamitous deputies in attack so far, Ronaldo is hardly being selfish. He knows that Portugal’s attack rests on his shoulders – a burden he is only too happy to carry.
For the first time in this tournament Sardar Azmoun will be afford a chance to really stretch his legs as Iran have no option but to release the handbrake in search of victory.
Azmoun has taken 60 touches across 180 minutes so far. That’s 38 fewer than Ronaldo and given that the 23-year-old is supposed to be Team Melli’s leading light, Carlos Queiroz must work out how to bring him more into play.
Fortunately for them the challenge of creating space in-between Pepe, Jose Fonte and William Carvalho should be a touch less difficult than the Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets triumvirate.
The Rubin Kazan striker has the pace to worry Pepe and Fonte’s creaking legs and is physical in the air should Team Melli have better luck feeding him through the air rather than on ground.
Azmoun has only scored against Algeria and Lithuania for his country this year – it’s time to step up in the big leagues.
SAEID EZATOLAHI v JOAO MOUTINHO
Joao Moutinho projects an ocean of calm amid a rather patchy midfield for Portugal. Fernando Santos relies on the Monaco star to both be an effective shield and classy distributor. He is undoubtedly both of those things – but the problem is whether that’s enough.
Partner William Carvalho had a fine game against Spain but versus Morocco, he was overran as the pace of Portugal’s two-man midfield in a 4-4-2 was ruthlessly exposed.
Moutinho is intelligent enough to make up for his own shortcomings physically and is not afraid of the rough stuff, either, having made nine tackles across those two games and wedding that to an extremely impressive pass success rate just shy of 90 per cent.
Iran’s midfield will throw their weight around and whether it’s by skill or will, look for Moutinho to have a big game.
One Iranian who certainly impressed against Spain was Saeid Ezatolahi, who made up for missing the dramatic opening win versus Morocco due to suspension.
Queiroz was right to tinker with that winning formula. The 21-year-old did what many more celebrated midfielders could not and anticipated Spain’s quicksilver passing triangles several times during the match.
The Moutinho to Ronaldo connection will be more vital than ever for Portugal with the wingers misfiring and the FC Rostov destroyer must ruffle both for Iran to succeed. Not a big ask, then …
ALIREZA BEIRANVAND v RUI PATRICIO
Alireza Beiranvand left his nomadic family to achieve his dreams in Tehran. He’s gone from sleeping rough to living out his dreams.
Only the most fortuitous of deflected goals from Diego Costa has beaten the Iran stopper so far. While he was a helpless spectator for that one, just moments before the 25-year-old was in the thick of action to stop a goal-bound effort from Pique and then a rasping effort from Busquets.
He has had the benefit of a solid and packed Iranian defensive line to help him out and he’s likely to come under more pressure here, with Team Melli needing nothing short of a win.
Surprisingly though, Portugal counterpart Rui Patricio has made more saves than Beiranvand across two games – underlining the frailties that both Spain and Morocco laid bare in that defence.
The 30-year-old has just signed for newly-promoted Premier League team Wolves on a free transfer after the falling out at Sporting Lisbon and there may not be a better signing this summer.
He somehow scrambled across his goal to keep out Younes Belhanda’s pin-point header in a save that drew comparisons with Gordon Banks’ stop against Pele in 1970. Overkill, perhaps, but not far off.