The Tavern reached out to Iranian football writer & podcaster Sina Saemian for his expertise on Team Melli ahead of tomorrow’s crucial World Cup qualifier. Read on for info about what’s changed since Korea’s defeat at the Azadi Stadium in November of 2014, his thoughts about the rumoured 3-4-3 shape for Korea, and clarification on the religious situation.
Our sides last met in November 2014, when Uli Stielike wanted to test his side in Iran at the Azadi. Although Korea played quite brightly, they couldn’t find the back of the net and a controversial Sardar Azmoun header was the difference. Tempers flared and frustration abounded – yet another Iranian win. Anyway, in broad terms, how have Iran changed since then?
Well, certainly in terms of style, there hasn’t been many drastic changes in Queiroz’s philosophy. His main focus in the past two years has been to introduce many new young players and give Iran a younger look. The retirement of veteran captain and midfielder, Javad Nekounam, really symbolised the end of an era and his immediate replacement was an 18 year old midfielder in Saeed Ezatollahi.
The Koreans will most certainly recognise many names in the starting line up such as Jalal Hosseini, Ashkan Dejagah and Andranik Teymourian, but there’ll also be some new blood that will feature such as Ramin Rezaeian, Morteza Pouraligsnji and Alireza Beiranvand. However, Queiroz’s approach to this game will be very similar to past games between the two countries, with much of the focus being on the defensive phase of the game, especially with South Korea being the highest goalscorers in the final qualifying round.
For those of us not in the Iranian football loop, everything’s a bit confusing. Carlos Quieroz, your Portuguese manager, is still around! Wasn’t he on his way out? What does he bring to the team / what is his philosophy?
Where do I start with this one?! Queiroz’s tenure as manager of Iran, since 2011, has been full of controversies. There is a lot of tension between him and the Sports Ministry, due to various issues. From low quality training kits, to a lack of training camps and friendlies. He continues to engage in media war with local coaches and managers, which certainly does him no favours. In 2013, he even had his little rivalry, if you want to call it that, with Choi Kanghee who was South Korea’s manager at the time, and his infamous celebration at the end of that 1-0 victory really set the tone for future games between the two countries, including the upcoming game.
He is a character that divides opinion within Iran. He has his strong supporters who believe he is absolutely the right man to take Iran forward, but he also has some hardcore critics who believe his “negative” tactics and antiques off the pitch bring no good to Iran. On the other hand, one thing is for sure, the players absolutely love him. All the players constantly show their support for him and praise him in all their interviews. He’s certainly got the players on his side and you can see the players thoroughly enjoy playing for him in every game.
How has qualifying gone so far?
It’s been a decent start so far. I think looking at the results, we are in a comfortable situation and we’ve put ourselves in a very healthy position to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
But putting the results aside, the performances have been very below par. A 2-0 win against Qatar at home was only obtained once the Qatari goalkeeper decided to gift us a goal in the 93rd minute, before their whole team capitulated, and a dreadful performance in China resulted in a 0-0 vs the Chinese.
The 1-0 away victory against Uzbekistan was much much better, I think partly because the nerves had settled, we passed the ball around well and created chances, the home side didn’t have a single shot on target which is further proof to Iran’s solid defence.
How confident are you and Iranian supporters about a result in this match?
I think matches vs South Korea, in any competition or even friendly games, has its own excitement for the fans. The Iranian supporters have some good memories from our matches in the last few decades, and they are hopeful and confident that this match will be yet another positive memory. 3 clean sheets in a row, a team full of confidence, and also playing at the Azadi in front of our own supporters will certainly give us the edge going into this. But the media and fans alike, are aware of the threat South Korea poses. The likes of Son Heungmin and Ki Sungturns are very familiar names to the fans and they know the quality the South Koreans have.
A starting lineup prediction and a couple key players?
Carlos Queiroz named a very surprising line up against Uzbekistan on Thursday, with many of the first team players being rested. But I think we will see him going back to his usual starting 11. Alireza Beiranvand in goal, a back four of Ramin Rezaeian, Jalal Hosseini, Morteza Pouraliganji and Ehsan Hajsafi, in midfield there’ll be a return for captain Andranik Teymourian and he’ll play alongside Saeed Ezatollahi, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Ashkan Dejagah and Vahid Amiri, with Sardar Azmoun leading the line. In terms of key players, of course Sardar Azmoun and Alireza Jahanbakhsh will be the names to look at certainly in attack.
But in my opinion Iran’s biggest threat in big games comes from set pieces, especially corners, so look out for Morteza Pouraliganji who is a good header of the ball and he’s proven that in the past. In terms of weaknesses, if Stielike has done his homework, he will most certainly target Iran’s right side of the defence. Ramin Rezaeian, who has featured as a regular right back in the past few games, is a very offensive full back but his defensive abilities are a concern and I’m sure the South Koreans will look to take advantage of that.
Are Iran still those same old, pesky defensive stalwarts of the 2014 qualifying campaign? What will Korea have to do (in your estimation) to beat this “Azadi jinx”?
Absolutely, Iran’s priority in every game under Queiroz has been to keep a clean sheet. So this game is no different, Queiroz would not want to lose this extremely important game, especially at home, so he will set his team up to nullify South Korea’s strong attack.
I’ve heard rumours that Stielike may be trying a back 3 in this game and I can somewhat understand that. China played a back 3 against Iran a month ago and Iran really struggled to break them down, Azmoun was really Isolated and the midfielders looked invisible going forward, so maybe such a formation may pay dividends.
But putting tactics aside, I think it’s all about mentality. The South Koreans need to play without fear, I know Azadi Stadium is intimidating when the fans are in full flow, but the players need to get over the atmosphere if they want to get a result. South Korea have a very, very good team and there’s no doubt that they have more than what it takes to take something from Tehran. But for me it’s all about mentality and approaching this game in the right manner.
Are you game for a score prediction? How do you think the game will pan out?
I’ve never met anyone worse than myself when it comes to score predictions! I think it’ll be a very tight game because it’s still early in the qualifiers and I don’t think either team would want to lose at this point, so in my opinion it may very well end up at 0-0 or 1-1. If I had to pick a winner I’d probably go for a 1-0 win for Iran and the goal coming from a set piece, as it has done in the past 3 meetings between these two teams in Tehran.
Oh, and one quick bonus questions. Our readers have been quite curious about this. It appears that this game is being held on a Shia day of mourning, Tasua. The Iranian embassy has instructed Korean supporters to wear dark colours and not cheer, while the religious clerics demanded the game be forfeited. What’s going on?
This is a very complicated matter. This week is a very important week in Iran in religious terms, which is why the IFF (Iranian Football Federation) contacted AFC over 2 months ago to try to postpone this game to another day. However, the AFC did not accept.
There’s been many debates amongst Iran’s religious leaders that this game should not take place. Fortunately for us, they don’t really make the decisions, so the game will go ahead. Rumours are that players maybe advised not to celebrate any goals in respect to the mourning ceremonies, and you may see black (religious) banners and flags within the stadium and fans, which have been organised from a few days ago by government officials.
I think if it was a game of less importance, it wouldn’t have mattered that much. But, since this is a huge game and tens of millions of people will watch the game across the country, it has caused some controversy from the clerics and religious leaders in Iran. They don’t want the attention to be on a football game during this week when there are important religious matters to be attended.
Thanks for this, Sina, and best of luck to Iran!