(IranSportsPress – sports.yahoo.com) – Henry Bushnell
Odds to win Group B: 3.8%
Odds to advance: 12.5%
Odds to win World Cup: 0.2%
Elo rank: 21
Yahoo Sports power rank: 28
Our writers say: Team Melli is built to frustrate favored opponents, just as it did Argentina for 90 minutes and 28 seconds in 2014. Four years later, though, it possesses a bit more of a counterattacking threat. Spain and Portugal – the latter, especially – must be wary. — Henry Bushnell
World Cup appearance: 5th
Best World Cup finish: Group stage
2014 finish: Group stage (0-1-2)
Qualifying: Won Asia’s Group A ahead of South Korea and Syria
Schedule: Morocco (Friday, June 15, 11 a.m., Fox), Spain (Wednesday, June 20, 2 p.m., Fox), Portugal (Monday, June 25, 2 p.m., Fox/FS1)
Manager: Carlos Queiroz
Captain: Ashkan Dejagah (M)
Top players: Sardar Azmoun (F), Alireza Jahanbakhsh (F)
Full 23-man (or preliminary) squad
Why they’ll win games: Iran didn’t concede a single goal during the final round of qualifying until the last matchday, at which point it had already booked its ticket to Russia. Queiroz is excellent, and has personnel that suits his restrained pressing system. His team will frustrate superior opponents, like it did Argentina four years ago. But this time, with Azmoun and Jahanbakhsh the attacking catalysts, and a younger squad overall, there’s significantly more punch.
Why they’ll lose games: There isn’t nearly enough technical ability in midfield and at the back to control a World Cup game. So Iran will be stuck on the back foot for long stretches. And center backs from the Persian Gulf Pro League and Qatar Stars League can only keep Cristiano Ronaldo and Spain’s stars at bay for so long.
How they’ll play: They’ll defend. A lot. Against Spain and Portugal, they’ll likely pull their line of confrontation back to midfield, and repel attacks in a 4-5-1 of sorts, with two back-line shields. They’ll break through Azmoun when possible.
Projected lineup (4-2-3-1): Alireza Beiranvand; Ramin Rezaeian, Jalal Hosseini, Morteza Pouraliganji, Milad Mohammadi; Saeid Ezatolahi, Ehsan Hajsafi; Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Ashkan Dejagah, Saman Ghoddos; Sardar Azmoun.
Mehdi Taremi could start out of position on the left wing, instead of Ghoddos. Ezatolahi is suspended for the opener, and his most likely replacement is Ali Karimi.
What makes them unique: Queiroz is a fascinating figure. Even more fascinating is the Mozambique-born Portuguese manager’s résumé. It includes two stints at the helm of Portugal’s national team and two stints as a Sir Alex Ferguson assistant at Manchester United. Queiroz’s four club managerial jobs were Real Madrid, Sporting CP, MLS’s New York/New Jersey MetroStars, and as Arsene Wenger’s successor at Japanese club Nagoya Grampus Eight. He’s also taken charge of the United Arab Emirates and South Africa national teams. Now he’s taking Iran to a second straight World Cup, and this time find himself matched up with his native country.
Why to root for them: Do you want to take pleasure in Ronaldo’s arms flailing around in frustration? Iran might just be the team for you. And although it’s a long shot to advance from the group, it really does have a shot of taking upset bids into the second halves of games.