(Reuters) - Iran secured back-to-back World Cup qualification for the first time in the country’s history as Carlos Queiroz and his team sealed the nation’s fifth appearance at the finals with relative comfort.
Iran were the first Asian nation to qualify for Russia 2018 as a miserly defence allied with the striking prowess of Sardar Azmoun saw Team Melli top their group ahead of South Korea to take one of the continent’s four automatic berths.
Queiroz has built on the country’s performance in Brazil 2014, when they exited in the group phase after encouraging showings against Nigeria, securing a 0-0 draw, and Argentina, with Lionel Messi’s injury-time winner denying Iran a point.
The former Real Madrid and Portugal coach, who took over in April 2011, has freshened up his squad over the last four years, with Rubin Kazan’s Azmoun the star attraction in a team boasting more Europe-based players than any previous Iran side.
Azmoun is one of three players who play their club football in Russia, along with central midfielder Saeid Ezatolahi and full back Milad Mohammdi, while Alireza Jahanbaksh and Reza Ghoochannejhad are well established in the Dutch Eredivisie.
Queiroz has sought to strike a balance between youth and experience, keeping World Cup veterans Ashkan Dejagah and Jalal Hosseini involved as he sets his sights on taking the country into the second round for the first time.
The Portuguese coach has voiced concerns over the impact a lack of high quality opposition in the lead-up to the finals could have on his team.
But, with the Iran boasting the defensive attributes typically associated with a Queiroz-coached side, the three-time Asian Cup winners are hopeful of a longer stay in Russia for their fanatical support than at any previous World Cup.
Writing by Michael Church in Hong Kong; Editing by John O'Brien