Sochi, June 14 (IANS) Having failed to progress beyond the group stages in their previous appearances, Asian giants Iran will aim to rewrite history when they face Morocco in a Group B match of the FIFA World Cup here on Friday.
Having first played at the World Cup in 1978, Iran have made three appearances since then — 1998, 2006 and 2014. However, they have never progressed beyond the group stages, managing only a lone win, against bitter rivals US in 1998.
Morocco have also qualified for the World Cup after a gap of 20 years. Their last appearance was at France 1998 when they progressed to the second round.
Both sets of players will thus be eager to put their best foot forward when they march out onto the Saint Petersburg Stadium pitch on Friday.
A strong defence is Iran’s main strength and Morocco’s strikers will be tested when they face a team which plays possession-based football and also presses aggressively in defence.
Captain and central defender Jalal Hosseini and right back Steven Beitashour have prior World Cup experience, having played at the 2014 edition while Voria Ghafouri — who can be employed as a winger or a full back — is also a veteran in the team.
Iran also have a wealth of talent upfront with several players plying their trade in the European leagues.
Sardar Azmoun, a 23-year-old striker hailed as the “Iranian Messi”, who plays for Russian club Rubin Kazan, already has 23 goals for his country, including an amazing 11-goal haul during the Asian qualifiers.
Other Iran strikers Karim Ansarifard of Greek club Olympiacos and Reza Ghoochannejhad of Dutch outfit Heerenveen have also played at the 2014 World Cup.
Their partnership with Azmoun could create problems for the Morocco defence.
This match will be a golden chance for Iran to make their mark and to have some points with European Champions Portugal and World Cup favourites Spain likely to provide a much sterner test in what is a tough group.
Morocco, on the other hand, will be well-rounded by Juventus centre-back Medhi Benatia which will help the team to organise a proper defence structure.
Further forward, 25-year-old Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech is the fulcrum of Morocco’s attacking play.
The former Netherlands U-21 international scored nine goals and made a league-leading 15 assists in the Dutch Eredivisie this season, being named Dutch Footballer of the Year for his trouble.
Morocco will be looking to his vision and creativity if they are to spring any surprises in Russia.
Rising star Achraf Hakimi has just lifted the Champions League trophy with La Liga giants Real Madrid and should be one of the brighter sparks in the Morocco squad.