(Reuters) - An own goal in stoppage time seemingly sent from the heavens gave Iran a 1-0 win over Morocco in their World Cup opener but they will need their own players to find a way to score against heavyweights Spain and Portugal if they hope to advance.
With his forwards spurning a number of chances at St Petersburg Stadium, Iran coach Carlos Queiroz doubtless noted how Morocco’s hapless Aziz Bouhaddouz made by far the most telling intervention by heading in Ehsan Hajsafi’s free kick.
It was a mistake, of course, and a howling one at that, but also quite the biggest test Morocco keeper Munir Mohamedi had to face on a gloomy evening for the north Africans.
Iran, of course, partied like it was 1998, which was the last time they had won a match at a World Cup despite qualifying for two further tournaments before Russia.
Iran have never advanced beyond the tournament’s group stage in four previous efforts but now have a decent shot at it, even with the Iberian powers dominating Group B, one of Russia’s toughest pools.
But once Team Melli wind down the singing of their victory song, they have plenty to ponder.
For an outfit that had two of their World Cup warmups cancelled and their preparations disrupted by Nike’s late refusal to supply equipment, they might have expected to be rusty.
But Iran appeared corroded to the point of paralysis early against the lively Moroccans, and they were spared only by their opponents’ wastefulness in the opening 20 minutes.
Lucky not to concede from a goalmouth scramble, Iran finally snapped into gear minutes later with a quick break from defence but Karim Ansarifard gave Morocco relief with a clumsy effort in the box.
Striker Sardar Azmoun also broke clear though the middle but shot straight at Mohamedi to squander Iran’s best chance.
Much has been expected of Netherlands-based Alireza Jahanbakhsh after he dominated the Eredivisie last season with AZ Alkmaar but he was barely a factor on the game’s biggest stage.
Iran once again had to lean on their defence and the particular stinginess of keeper Alireza Beiranvand, who helped them to 12 consecutive clean sheets in qualifying.
His late save from a searing effort by Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech almost certainly saved them from a drearier outcome.
Portuguese Queiroz claimed success in a strategy of causing a “mental collapse” against Morocco, creating frustration with their defence until the Africans finally snapped.
But he also admitted they needed “a little bit of luck” to prevail.
Such fortune could not possibly arrive so neatly gift-wrapped again.
“Against Spain, we have from the goalkeeper until the striker, everybody can create things, so we need to think of a different strategy,” said Queiroz.
Editing by Ian Chadband