Iran impressed in World Cup qualifying but drew two tough European opponents that will make getting out of Group B extremely difficult.
Iran is appearing at its second consecutive World Cup for the first time in its history, and despite landing a group not many will envy, leaving chances of reaching the knockout stage a long shot at best, confidence will be flowing through the Iranian ranks.
Iran has a revered manager in Carlos Queiroz, who has previously taken Portugal and South Africa to the World Cup - as well as leading Iran to the 2014 tournament - and finished its qualification campaign undefeated in cruising to Russia.
The Iranians have only won one match in four previous World Cup finals appearances, and will not be expected to do a whole lot more this time around, considering they've landed a group with European champion Portugal, one of the pre-tournament favorites in Spain and Morocco. Often, though, it's when the pressure is off that we see some of the biggest shocks at international tournaments. Could an in-form Iran be this year's dark horse?
How They Qualified
Carlos Queiroz in an interview with @futbolarena:— Hatam Sh (@1980daddy) May 23, 2018
"We will do everything to qualify from our group in #2018FWC and write history. Maybe it seems to be impossible at this time but In football, you can never say never"@TeamMelliIran#کیروش #کیروش #جام_جهانی #ایران #تیم_ملی pic.twitter.com/HhVKjyerF7
There aren't enough superlatives to accurately describe the impressive fashion in which Iran qualified for this year's FIFA World Cup. Over its 10 games in the final stage of the Asian qualifiers, it didn't once lose, and didn't even concede until the final fixture - twice to Syria in a 2-2 draw - by which point it had already mathematically qualified, having done so two games earlier.
The only side in the world to achieve a better qualifying record was Brazil. What's peculiar about the campaign is that Iran did it without scoring an impressive amount of goals - managing just 10 goals as they won six and drew four of their qualifying fixtures.
Despite this, Iran harnessed the defensive rigidity that has characterized the nation under Queiroz, easily finishing seven points clear of South Korea at the top of the group.
Group Stage Games
There will no doubt have been some wincing faces among the Iran faithful when their group was drawn. Any hopes they have of qualifying from the group stage for the first time in Iran's history surely hinge on taking three points from the opening fixture against Morocco on the tournament's second match day; which will be no easy task in its own right.
The other fixtures come against Spain on June 20 and Portugal on June 25 - two fixtures in which Iran will have to call upon all of the strength in defense, and a large slice of luck, if they are to take anything.
Possible Route to the Final
Should Iran pull of the shock and advance beyond the group stage ahead of - surely - either Spain or Portugal, it could well be rewarded with something of a winnable last-16 tie.
Well, at least in comparison to the grueling Spain and Portugal games it will have to survive to get there. If Iran gets through, it would likely face the winner of Group A, which consists of hosts Russia, Mohamed Salah's Egypt, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia. Even making it to this stage would be an immensely historic moment in Iranian football history, but you can't imagine them doing much beyond the last 16.
A potential quarterfinal would see Iran like face off against either France or Croatia unless we see a turn of events elsewhere.
Goalkeepers: Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis), Rashid Mazaheri (Zob Ahan), Amir Abedzadeh (Maritimo)
Defenders: Ramin Rezaeian (Ostende), Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), Morteza Pouraliganji (Alsaad), Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal), Seyed Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny), Roozbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal)
Midfielders: Saeid Ezatolahi (Amkar Perm), Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens), Mahdi Torabi (Saipa), Ashkan Dejagah (Notthingham Forest), Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), Ehsan Hajsafi (Olympiacos), Vahid Amiri (Persepolis)
Forwards: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar), Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos), Saman Ghoddos (Ostersunds FK, Sweden), Mahdi Taremi (Al Gharafa), Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan), Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen)
(4-3-3) Alireza Beiranvand; Ramin Rezaeian, Seyed Majid Hosseini, Morteza Pouraliganji, Milad Mohammadi; Ashkan Dejagh, Saeid Ezatolahi, Ehsan Hajsafi; Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Reza Ghoochannejhad, Sardar Azmoun.
What separates Iran from most of the other 'underdog' sides that show up at the World Cup full of confidence only to take one point from their group and finish rock bottom is that Iran is a very solid unit defensively. After its qualifying campaign, it will fancy itself to keep a clean sheet against just about anyone.
Having said that, while it is an impressive side defensively, the quality possessed by Portugal and Spain means that to stand a realistic chance of qualifying, Iran will have to at some point step out and try and score goals.
As such, it will be relying on one of Reza Ghoochannejhad or Sardar Azmoun to replicate Iranian legend Ali Daei and get amongst the goals. Confidence and defensive rigidity aside, though, it's not likely that Iran will qualify for the last 16. In addition to calling upon the performances of their lives, they will need one of Portugal or Spain to have an absolute disaster. It's happened before, however, and nothing will stop this Iran side from dreaming.
Well, Cristiano Ronaldo might.