Sardar Azmoun: The 'Iranian Messi' Set to Light Up World Cup and Premier League
One of the main issues surrounding Iran's Sardar Azmoun is whether he should be compared to Lionel Messi or Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The forward is so highly rated that fans back home are expecting him to become Iran's most successful footballer, and when his nation takes to the pitch at this year's FIFA World Cup, his name is likely to linger on the lips of spectators and commentators.
Azmoun is a forward who can head like Zlatan and run like Messi, but he is playing for Rubin Kazan in the Russian Premier League rather than in one of Europe's big leagues—a fact that should change this summer.
In the past two years, Liverpool, AC Milan and Lazio have been linked with him. The time is fast approaching for him to make a leap away from Russian football.
The World Cup is likely to provide the springboard for a move to the Premier League, but where will he land?
Judging His Talent
Since making his mark as a teenager, journalists began to build the hype around Iran's prodigy.
Type "Iranian Messi" into a search engine, and you will immediately come across a lookalike who does have a remarkable resemblance to the Argentinian superstar. But dig a little deeper, and the articles speak of Azmoun.
His goal record for the national team is impressive, with 23 from 31 caps giving him the best goals-per-game ratio of any footballer in Iran's history. And the big clubs have been watching.
"He has been linked several times to big teams like Arsenal, Liverpool, Milan and, more recently, Lazio," journalist Alireza Ashraf explained. "But none of them have yet led to a move.
"I think it was an exaggeration at first when some journalists compared him—and his style of play—with Messi, although it was widely spread in sports media around the world. He is a target forward who always tries to make the defenders tired and tries to find a way through them to score a goal. He rarely does take-ons and likes direct play.
"He has had many nicknames in recent years after shining for Iran and his clubs in the Russian League. Iranian Messi and Iranian Zlatan are the most used—interestingly, he picks the last one and has said he loves Zlatan and his style on the pitch.
"Azmoun believes that his football doesn't look like Messi's at all, and he doesn't know why people chose the name of great Argentinian for his nickname."
Heading is a major strength of his game, while he is also capable of superb close control. His finishing is as good as you could expect of a forward earning such comparisons.
Perhaps the way he ghosts into dangerous positions is Messi-like, but Arya Allahverdi of Iranian football podcast Gol Bezan said: "If anything, the comparisons to Ibrahimovic are more credible."
Ready for the Big Time
It's difficult to prove you are capable of playing like Messi or Ibrahimovic in the Russian Premier League, but given his opportunity, Azmoun has shown his quality.
Terrific goals for Rostov against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid in last season's UEFA Champions League escalated claims Azmoun can become a world-beater.
Liverpool scouts were at the Bayern game, and they remain one of the clubs keeping tabs on his progress.
"The biggest problem right now is his foggy future and his sticking with the Russia league," explained Iranian football writer Poorya Tabatabaee, a journalist for isport.ir. "Everybody would like him to be in a greater league and at a bigger team. Every season, the links to big clubs like Arsenal or Liverpool arrive. But then he is playing in Russia again—people are tired of this.
"We are worried about his golden years as a young player and really want to see him at a great club after Russia 2018. We have so many bad memories like that: talented players who made bad choices or weren't strong enough to have a hard-training lifestyle.
Making the Jump
"He has shown promise, but not enough for the enormous hype. I think the Messi nickname has put a lot of pressure on him, which he doesn't handle well. It would be better for him if he could play without all the attention and pressure, but that's of course a part of football.
"When he eventually leaves Rubin Kazan, I predict he'll move to a lower-ranked club in one of the big countries. At some point, someone will take a chance with him, and then it'll be up to him to prove that he has what it takes."
Azmoun was heading for a life in professional volleyball until his head was turned by football, and he moved to Kazan at the age of 17.
There has been great hope—perhaps even expectation—that he would exceed the success of Ali Daei, Iran's 109-goal record scorer.
But there remains some fear he has settled into a comfort zone, as explained by Iranian football expert Ashraf: "Some believed that Azmoun should have left Russia at the beginning of this season for a bigger league, but he remained there and decided to work with Kurban Berdyev, who somehow is his greatest influencer in football.
"I think it's time for him to pack his bags and get ready for a big move, especially as we are getting closer to the World Cup. He could have one of those performances that really grabs people's eyes like he has in the past."
Heading to the Premier League?
He may have been linked to big clubs like Liverpool and Lazio, but sources close to the situation believe such a transfer is unrealistic at this stage.
They believe the most likely chance of him moving to England would be a switch to Leicester City, Everton or Wolverhampton Wanderers—with the newly promoted side looking his best shot.
Wolves have been scouting Azmoun this season and are confident that, despite reservations in Iran that he may not have the mentality for top-level football, he can prosper in the Premier League.
It is expected they will look into the details of a deal before the World Cup so that a transfer can be wrapped up quickly if they decide to go ahead with a bid.
There is also a feeling Celtic could also emerge as serious contenders for his signature.
Azmoun is believed to have some concerns about British football, though. Sources say he is unsure he has the physique to fit in.
The World Cup is going to prove one way or the other which way his career is heading.
"Azmoun is a big-game player for Iran," says Gol Bezan's Allahverdi. "He comes alive in big games. When he puts on the national team shirt, he just can't stop scoring. I feel like he has the potential to cause real issues at the World Cup."
Watch this space: Sardar Azmoun is on the verge of becoming a pretty big deal.