Iran are readying themselves for a third straight World Cup finals appearance but may have their work cut out if they are to reach the knockout stages for the first time.
Team Melli won their opening game against Morocco four years ago, before losing to Spain and drawing with Portugal. They were therefore unlucky not to progress from Group B and now face a similarly competitive pool in Qatar.
England are the 1/3 favourites to top Group B, but second place is up for grabs, with the United States 1/1 and Wales 11/10 to qualify. Iran are 4/1 but retain an element of surprise and will be out to upset their rivals.
However, their approach to the tournament has been anything but settled, with Dragan Skocic sacked after leading them through qualification to be replaced by the returning Carlos Queiroz.
|When:||20th November - 18th December 2022|
|How to watch:||All matches will be shown on either the BBC or ITV|
|Odds:||Brazil 9/2, England 11/2, France 6/1, Argentina 7/1, Spain 8/1|
The Iranians have never made it past the opening round in five previous appearances at the World Cup.
They first qualified in 1978 and, while they drew with Scotland, defeats to the Netherlands and Peru were enough to see them fall at the first hurdle.
After a 20-year period where they failed to qualify, Iran returned to the global showpiece at France '98. They won their grudge match against the USA, but lost to Germany and Yugoslavia.
They then took just one point from six games in 2006 and 2014, before finally grabbing their second World Cup win against the Moroccans four years ago.
|Group stage||1978, 1998, 2006, 2014, 2018|
Iran enjoyed a decent run through qualifying. Entering in the second round, away defeats to Bahrain and Iraq were the sole blots on their copybook and they were particularly impressive in beating Cambodia by an aggregate of 24-0 over their two games.
That tally was enough to see them through as top seeds in Group C and they repeated the trick in third qualifying. Team Melli won eight of their 10 matches to prove too good for South Korea and qualify automatically courtesy of a final-day 2-0 home win against Lebanon.
Porto's Mehdi Taremi and former Brighton man Alireza Jahanbakhsh led the way with four goals in the third round of qualifying, while Bayer Leverkusen's Sardar Azmoun contributed three strikes, having netted seven times in the previous round.
Iran have been drawn in Group B alongside one of the tournament favourites, England. The pair meet on the second day of World Cup 2022, 21st November, at Al Rayyan's Khalifa International Stadium.
Queiroz's side are 10/1 to grab an opening win, before crossing Al Rayyan to take on Wales at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on 25th November.
They conclude their Group B campaign against the United States in Doha on 29th November. It will be the second time the pair have met at a World Cup, with the Iranians triumphing 2-1 in the aforementioned clash in France.
World Cup - Football: Group B preview
World Cup - Football: England team profile
World Cup - Football: USA team profile
World Cup - Football: Wales team profile
Known as one of the best coaches of his generation, Queiroz has never quite been able to transfer his skills on the training pitch to the manager's office at club level.
He is arguably better suited to international management and this is the 69-year-old's second spell in charge of Iran, having led them between 2011 and 2019.
Queiroz has also spent time coaching Portugal (twice), Colombia and Egypt, while English fans will know him best for his two spells as Sir Alex Ferguson's assistant at Manchester United, while he also had a season coaching Real Madrid.
Ferguson described the 69-year-old as "brilliant, outstanding - an intelligent, meticulous man" in his autobiography and he will need all of his tactical acumen in Qatar, especially with his limited build-up
Iran are blessed with a cosmopolitan squad and are a settled outfit, with the majority of their established players aged between 26 and 32.
However, it is Azmoun who stands out, averaging over a goal every other game at international level and he only looks to have improved since swapping Zenit Saint Petersburg for Bayer Leverkusen in January 2022.
West Ham were one of the sides linked with his signature prior to moving to the Bundesliga and his combination of quick feet, clever movement and aerial ability make him a handful for any defence.
Queiroz's return may have come at the perfect time for Iran's young players and Amirhossein Hosseinzadeh could be a beneficiary.
The midfielder made his debut earlier this year and has since moved to Europe with Belgian side Charleroi, where he plays alongside Ali Gholizadeh.
Hosseinzadeh is likely to take time to settle in but is clearly a talent, having won the Iranian Pro league during his sole season with Esteghlal.
While potential someway from his country's starting XI, his dynamism off the bench is sure to interest Queiroz and makes him a candidate to make the final squad.
Predicted line-up (4-1-4-1): Alireza Beiranvand; Sadegh Moharrami, Hossein Kanaanizadegan, Majid Hosseini, Omid Noorafkan; Saeid Ezatolahi; Allahyar Sayyadmanesh, Ehsan Hajsafi, Omid Ebrahimi, Alireza Jahanbakhsh; Sardar Azmoun.
Skocic's approach was built on a back four with a holding man in midfield. Queiroz will probably echo this, as it allows him to field Jahanbakhsh from the left, while captain Ehsan Hajsafi should patrol the midfield.
There have been suggestions of a potential switch to a back three to allow Taremi to come into the team but Azmoun's status as his country's star suggests he will lead the line and the Porto man will need to do what he can off the bench.
Iran's record perhaps shows where they have traditionally stood in the global pecking order. While they have more players abroad these days, few of them are in the upper echelons of European football.
The likes of Jahanbakhsh have been tried in the Premier League but struggled for consistency. However, that ability to produce moments of magic might be what's needed to cause a surprise, with them 16/1 to top Group B.
Taking advantage of a nervy England side might be key, but it is against the USA and Wales where Iran's chances are likely to come.
Can they get a third World Cup win? Potentially. However, it may not prove enough and a sixth first-round exit might well be on the cards for Team Melli.
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