Hong Kong: Carlos Queiroz’s return as Iran coach threatened to throw the country’s preparations for a third straight World Cup appearance into turmoil but instead the re-hiring of the Portuguese has galvanised an ageing squad for one last crack at history.
In five previous World Cup campaigns, Iran have never progressed beyond the group phase but after being drawn in a group alongside England, Wales and the United States hopes are growing that their disappointing record might be broken.
Queiroz reclaimed the position at the helm in mid-September, replacing Dragan Skocic after qualification was assured with the Croatian ousted as a result of the fall-out from an acrimonious Iran Football Federation presidential election.
The former Real Madrid and Portugal coach is looking to reignite a relationship he fostered with the squad during his previous eight-year stint and the signs are clear from the beginning that little has changed for the 69-year-old coach.
For their September friendlies against Uruguay and Senegal, Queiroz picked 16 of the 23-man squad he selected for the finals in Russia in 2018, when Iran recorded their best-ever result at a World Cup with four points from three games.
That saw Team Melli narrowly miss out on a place in the knockout rounds, and Queiroz and company will be determined to go one step further in Qatar.
Off-field matters, however, could cause significant distraction for the Iranians.
The meetings with England and the United States will be politically charged domestically while protests over women’s rights in Iran have had a psychological impact on a squad that was fractured by the controversy over Queiroz’s re-hiring.
The performances against Uruguay and Senegal in September carried all the hallmarks of a Queiroz coached side, however, with defensive discipline and a ruthlessness on the counterattack of utmost importance.
Iran’s defence worked hard to limit Uruguay strikers Darwin Nunez and Luis Suarez before Mehdi Taremi stepped off the bench to start and finish the move that delivered the only goal of the game in Austria.
Taremi, who has come to increasing prominence with Porto in the last two seasons, carries much of Iran’s attacking threat and can be used either on his own or in tandem with Bayer Leverkusen’s Sardar Azmoun.
Former Brighton & Hove Albion winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh will also be keen to prove English football fans did not see the best of his talents during his three-season stint in the Premier League as Iran look to break new ground at the World Cup.