3 Key Figures for Iran in the 2014 World Cup
Carlos Queiroz's Iran side have progressed with their preparations for the World Cup this past week, drawing 1-1 with Angola following scoreless draws with Montenegro and Belarus.
A final warm-up match has been scheduled against Trinidad and Tobago for June 8, some six days before their opening clash with reigning African champions Nigeria.
Issues with the Iranian Football Federation have dampened expectations heading into the tournament, as poor planning and a lack of funding prevented Queiroz from holding a training camp in his native Portugal and also prevented Iran from securing friendlies with higher-ranked nations.
Speaking with reporters last week, Queiroz expressed guarded optimism:
Those who think Iran’s national team will be successful with only 14 days of preparation, are either crazy or are living in Disneyland... if we plan a good preparation programme for the team in accordance with reality, then we can expect to go to the second round.
Iran face a difficult group, but not a group that could be called one of the famed "groups of death."
Indeed, three of the four Asian sides avoided placement in notably strong groups (Japan, South Korea and Iran), while Australia face perhaps the most difficult set of matches any team will have to play. All the Asian sides with the exception of Australia have a reasonable shot at progression.
With that being said, the task for Iran will be a monumental one.
Without proper preparation, they will need to play incredibly disciplined football and win at least one of the matches with Bosnia and Nigeria. A point against Argentina would be a massive shock.
Here are Iran's three most important figures, in terms of potential impact during the tournament.
Captain Javad Nekounam has prior World Cup experience, having started two matches for Team Melli in 2006.
The Kuwait FC star has over 130 international caps and is one of Iran's few starters who have significant experience at the club level in Europe, having spent parts of six seasons with Osasuna in Spain.
As Iran's central playmaker, he is integral to Queiroz's tactical setup, which will undoubtedly see Iran play a counterattacking style to offset the threat of the attackers they will face in the group stage.
Simply put, no one else on the 23-man squad can offer what Nekounam does for this Iran team and he will need to be in top form to ignite an often anemic attack against the top competition in the world.
With that being said, it is far from an impossible task to finish second in the group, given the inexperience of Bosnia and the inconsistency of Nigeria at the World Cup. In an open group, a creative player like Nekounam could be the difference in a cagey affair against one of those two sides.
Another significant upside to Nekounam's game is his set piece ability. His delivery from corners and free-kicks is above-average, and he has scored some important free-kick goals in qualifying.
As Atletico Madrid showed in the UEFA Champions League Final, set pieces can make a huge difference in close affairs—even against more talented sides. Of course, they lost only after conceding the equalizer in the final minutes to Real Madrid—off a corner kick.
Iran's highly disciplined defense would be well-equipped to protect a lead, and Nekounam's skill set may prove very important in providing one.
Dejagah, a winger for Fulham FC, is Iran's most talented attacking threat.
Having scored multiple goals, often stunning long-range efforts, in Fulham's late bid for Premier League survival, he emerged as one of the very few Cottagers to have their stock increase after a dismal domestic season for the club.
Indeed, Dejagah was voted the team's player of the season. With a strong World Cup, he may attract interest from another side that will play in one of Europe's first leagues.
Originally having played for Germany's victorious under-21 side at the 2009 European Championship tournament in Sweden, he has experience playing alongside some of the world's best players—including Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Manuel Neuer and Mats Hummels.
His form is vital for Iran and he will be relied upon to combine with Nekounam and likely Andranik Teymourian and Masoud Shojaei to provide service for Reza Ghoochannejhad up top.
Again, as one of Iran's few players playing in Europe, he will have experience against some of the players Iran will face in the group stage.
One of the very first matchups to watch will be Dejagah and Nekounam against Nigeria's physical central midfield, which includes Dejagah's Premier League rival John Obi Mikel of Chelsea.
How Dejagah does in such individual battles will dictate much of Iran's success in linking defense and attack.
In Queiroz's likely 4-3-2-1 or 4-2-3-1 formation, Ghoochannejhad stands as the lone striker.
The presence of the Dutch-Iranian was absolutely vital in qualifying, as he scored nine goals in his first 11 international appearances for Team Melli.
His goal in Seoul against South Korea proved to be vital in securing a first-place finish for Iran and the standing as Asia's top-ranked team heading into the tournament.
The main issue Iran have faced during Queiroz' tenure has been goalscoring. They scored only eight goals in eight games during the final stage of qualifying, and when factoring in that four of those were scored in one game against Lebanon, a return of four goals from seven games is simply not very impressive.
Ghoochannejhad will need to be on top of his game to give Iran a chance of scoring from open play against admittedly far more difficult competition than teams like Lebanon and Uzbekistan.
He is very nimble and swift on his feet, as his goal against South Korea displayed.
Given his knack for scoring important goals at vital times, he will be Iran's best hope of scoring on counterattacks or via clever movement.
Iran are unlikely to score multiple goals, but it's obviously incredibly important that they get on the board and ideally provide their solid defense with a lead to protect.
Should Ghoochannejhad succeed in providing that, the second round is a very distinct possibility for Iran.